The problems with early sport specialization

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Youth sports have changed significantly in recent years.  Gone are the days when kids organized neighborhood pickup games on weekends.  Instead, they play with club and travel teams and see private coaches and trainers year-round, all to chase a college athletic scholarship or a professional contract, dreams the vast majority will never achieve.  More and more young athletes are specializing in a single sport at an early age, often leading to injuries, burnout, and general disinterest.

Parents, who are often fixated on their children getting college athletic scholarships or playing professionally, have contributed to this trend.  Caryn Ward, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who lives in River Forest, Illinois, raised three sons, the youngest of whom, Sammy Brooks, completed his third year wrestling at the University of Iowa.  Brooks, 22, was a Big Ten conference champion and an All-American in 2016.  He played football and baseball before high school but then turned his focus to wrestling and his goal of competing in the Olympics.

“It was a family decision to stick to wrestling,” Ward said.

Because Brooks did not specialize until high school, he learned valuable skills, athletic and otherwise, from football and baseball that translated to wrestling.

“The discipline and hard work translate from sport to sport, so whether he learned it in baseball or wrestling doesn’t matter,” Ward said.  “He made friends in those sports that he wouldn’t have met if he was only doing wrestling.”

Kids who specialize earlier than Brooks are often not as lucky.  According to founder Brooke De Lench of MomsTeam, a web resource for youth sports parents, studies have shown that early specialization can increase social isolation, limit motor skills, and lead to overuse injuries.  In fact, overuse is the number one cause of injuries among athletes in high school and younger, as the best players are being overworked to give their teams a chance to win while potentially sacrificing future success.

“Experience playing multiple sports will help mentally and physically,” said Tyler Jorgensen, an assistant director of sports performance at Northwestern.  “Playing one sport can lead to burnout.  Mentally it takes a toll and mechanically as well.”

In an attempt to reverse the trend, many high school athletic programs are responding to that data and encourage their student-athletes to continue playing multiple sports.

“As football coach I’m happy when [my players] are doing other things,” said John Philipopoulos, athletic director and varsity football coach at Burlingame High School.  “It’s good for them mentally and physically and the research backs that up.”

However, many others, particularly parents and club coaches, do not see it that way.  The trend towards early specialization is due in part to Swedish researcher Anders Ericsson’s 10 year/10,000 hour rule.  Ericsson first developed the theory in 1993 but it did not become popular until 2008 with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.”  It supposedly refers to the amount of specific practice needed to reach the top of one’s sport.  Year-round activity is all but necessary to accumulate those hours.

“To become a better player you need to practice more,” Chris Steward, a coach at Chicago City Soccer Club, said.  “If you are aiming high, then year-round is a big plus to help the player become better overall.”

But the 10,000 hour rule does not have as much merit as was initially thought.  Evidence suggests that the quality of practice is more important than the number of hours.  Those who are not top competitors from an early age, with the exception of a few late bloomers, will likely not receive NCAA Division I scholarships or play professional sports anyway.  Only 6 percent of high school athletes compete at NCAA schools, the NCAA website reported.  Playing multiple sports early in life, however, has been shown to decrease burnout later on and help develop general athletic skills.

“Some of my players play basketball, and I have seen an improvement in their footwork and movement in soccer because of it,” Steward said.

In some sports, though, athletes peak in their teen years.  In these sports, such as gymnastics, figure skating, and swimming, it is better to specialize early.  Jack LeVant, a swimmer at Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, Texas, swam the 200 meter butterfly at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.  He dropped all other sports in fifth grade.

“I knew from when I was pretty young that swimming was what I wanted to do,” LeVant said.  “I decided if I wanted to succeed at the highest level, I would have to start getting serious.”

Sometimes, though, young athletes are forced to specialize early because playing multiple sports is time-consuming.  With all the other, non-athletic activities kids do these days, it is hard to fit multiple sports into their schedules.  Such a conflict prompted Emma Li, a rising high school senior from Shanghai, to drop golf in favor of fencing before her sophomore year.  Li had played both sports since eighth grade and had played golf since fifth grade.

“[Sophomore] year, I had to choose between golf and fencing because I only had time for one,” Li said.  “I realized that I enjoyed fencing more.  I don’t have time to pursue both of them and keep up with my academics and my other interests outside of sports.  The issue was mostly time and energy.”

Specialization only accounts for part of the continually increasing pressure on youth athletes.  From coaches looking to win championships and get the most out of their young stars to parents convinced that their child will be the next LeBron James or Serena Williams, many kids are under constant pressure to be the best.  This has led to rising numbers of athletes exhausting their potential before they can play collegiately or professionally, or losing interest in their sport and dropping out entirely.

“Parents don’t want to tell their kids their dreams are unrealistic,” Ward said.

Specialization and year-round play have also led to injuries.  Renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews reported that surgeons saw four times as many overuse injuries in 2011 as in 2006.  Dr. Victor Romano, 57, an orthopaedic surgeon working in Oak Park, Illinois, said that he now sees four to five patients per week, compared with one to two per week 20 years ago.

Athletes who have elbow or knee surgery early in life may never fully recover.  The Center for Disease Control reports that over half of sports injuries–ankle, head and knee injuries are among the most common–in children are preventable.  And by age 13, 70 percent of kids drop out of youth sports.  The top three reasons, reported Sports & Orthopaedic Specialists, an orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine practice based in Minneapolis, are coaches, parents, and other adults.

Reducing specialization and the influence of adults in young athletes’ lives should help reverse this tendency.

“Let’s get away from specialization and get back toward kids doing a number of different things,” Philipopoulos said.  “Sometimes it’s better to just back off and let the kid do [his or her] thing and have fun.  It’s easy to get frustrated as a parent, [but] the best thing to do is just make sure the kid enjoys the participation.”