A Summary of Sport Specialization in Youth Athletics


David J Caldarella, DPM FACFAS

Youth sport activities for children and adolescents has certainly changed over the last two generations.
Recreational “free” activities such as backyard play after school with friends, versus year round highly competitive and focused athletic participation vary from community to community. In our service area, many children and adolescents are involved in year round structured athletic activities which are correlated with a known increased potential risk of injuries.

Many studies have been published in the last several years analyzing the upward trend of adolescent sport related injuries. Overuse youth sports-related injuries represent a major public health challenge as overuse injuries generally result from excessive repetitive microtrauma to the tendons, muscles, joints and bones. Futhermore, regularly scheduled sport specific practices and competition in youth sports are compounded by insufficient rest in the growing child and adolescent. Most youth sport overuse injuries can be prevented and/or reduced by understanding basic guidelines and recommendations.

It is well known that sport specific training; defined as regularly practicing, competing and/or focusing on one specific sporting activity regularly over time leads to an increase rate of injury, and increases the potential severity of such an injury. Psychological stress and burnout, and a decrease in athletic performance and enjoyment may compound anxiety in youth athletes with longer term implications over time.

The greater the degree of sport specialization in children and adolescents, (who are skeletally immature until their later teen years) and the earlier the timeframe of sport specialization may create a recipe for a potential higher risk and incidence of significant injury.

Parents and Guardians unfortunately are often unaware of these negative consequences of sport specialization and may feel such specialization will provide a greater athletic advantage in development of their skills and success. Quite frankly, it’s nearly the opposite. Studies show that children and adolescents actually increase their athleticism in specific sports via participating in multiple sports in rotation over the course of the calendar year. It is recommended to refrain from participating in any sporting activity of choice for 2-3 months entirely per calendar year towards adequate rest and “healthy away time” from any given sport of interest.

All parents can easily get caught up in the frenzy of their local community involvement to participate socially and competitively in athletics. In our quest to provide our children with the many known health benefits of athletic activities and participation, overuse injuries are trending at an alarming rate.
Many coaches are unfortunately unaware of many medical recommendations and position statements regarding youth sport specialization. Guidelines exist outlining the maximum number of months per year, the hours per week of involvement in one specific sport, and the number of simultaneous leagues for youth athlete participation to reduce overuse injuries. Recent increasing trends in overuse injuries in children and adolescents are clearly related to sport specific volume increases above standard medical recommendations.

Early sport specialization is associated with an increased risk of overuse musculoskeletal injuries.
Too much of good thing can truly become a bad thing. Especially true in youth sports…..