Early sports specialization is a hot topic in today's health/fitness world. Have you ever wondered what age your kid should start playing sports? When should my kid focus on one sport? These are the questions that our Made 2 Move team sought out to answer. We hope you enjoy what we found!
15 years old. This was the age Micheal Jordan tried out for his high school basketball team and did not make it. At that same age, the famed Chelsea soccer player Didier Drogba, seriously picked up the sport of soccer. 15 years old was also the age that NBA star Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was when he dialed into the sport of basketball. None of these athletes started playing their sports as toddlers and yet, all of them still went on to play professionally. What do the early athletic backgrounds of these sports legends tell us? Their stories show us that it is possible, and even perhaps optimal in regards to injury and burnout, to avoid early sports specialization. Rather, kids may reap greater athletic benefits if they spend those early years experimenting in multiple sports.
What is Early Sports Specialization?
Early Sports Specialization can be defined as “ intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports'' (Jayanthi et. al 2013). Early sports specialization typically begins in early elementary aged children with a focus on intense training in one sport, but it is important to consider this definition as a sort of continuum with various training volumes and beginning ages amongst youth athletes.
The emergence of early sports specialization may be attributed to a famous study by Ericcson that defined what many people know of as the “10,000 hour rule.” Ericsson found that those who began a skill at an early age (younger than 7 years old) combined with deliberate practice (5,000-10,000 hours ) were more likely to become experts at the skill.
However, this study was conducted on musicians, not athletes and no specific amount of hours or starting age was definitely tied to expertise. Thus, the study, “does not necessarily indicate how to become a better athlete, which often requires a diverse set of skills, and appropriate physical development” (Ferguson et. al 2014).
Many parents believe they’re doing their kid a favor by starting them in a year round sport at an early age. It will give my child a competitive edge and a better chance to play in college right? But specializing in one sport at an early age may be disadvantageous in regards to a kid’s risk of injury, mental health, and chance of success in sport later on.
What does the research say?
Playing multiple sports may make you better at a singular one.
Wait, shouldn’t I dedicate all my time to one sport, starting at an early age, if I want to play at the college or professional level? Actually,the literature says no. It sounds backwards that playing multiple sports has the potential to make you better at a single one. Yet, research found that, “the greater the number of activities that the athletes experienced and practiced in their developing years (ages 0-12 years), the less sports-specific practice was necessary to acquire expertise in their sport. This is the transfer of pattern recall skills from one sport to another, most pronounced during the early stages of involvement. Early diversification followed by specialization may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries, and longer participation, contributing to the chances of success” (Jayanthi et. al 2013).
You don’t have to specialize early to play at the elite level.
In a study done on 376 female division I college athletes, only 17% were found to have specialized in one sport. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of college athletes played multiple sports growing up (Malina et. al 2010).
Another study on MLB players examined 1673 professional baseball players, including 26 of the 30 MLB teams. Their findings? “Less than half (44.5%) of professional athletes specialized in playing a single sport during their childhood/adolescence” (Buckley et. al 2020). Those who did report specializing early on did so at roughly 14-16 years old.
Risk of burnout and psychological fatigue tend to be more likely in those specializing in a singular sport early in childhood.
As children age, specifically around the age of 14 years old, specialization rates increase (obviously one must dedicate time to a singular sport in order to master it), but satisfaction and enjoyment in the sport simultaneously decrease (Jayanthi et. al 2013).
Children are meant to play. A sport 100% requires hard work and dedication but should still be fun and not be something a child dreads doing. Specializing in 1-2 sports in later teenage years allows kids to figure out what sports they truly enjoy, as well as get time off from one sport if playing 2 sports.
Risk of injury is higher with early sports specialization.
Recently, Jayanthi et al. (120) revealed a heightened risk of injury when youth participated in more hours of sports practice per week than their number of years in age, or whereby the ratio of organized sports to free play time was in excess of 2:1.
A study published in the journal, Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, reported the following reason that injury risk may be higher with single sport specialization in early childhood: “The lack of diversified activity may not allow young athletes to develop the appropriate neuromuscular skills that are effective in injury prevention and does not allow for the necessary rest from repetitive use of the same segments in the body. The positive transfer of skill with diversification is important in the successful development of a young athlete” (Myer et. al 2015).
We are always talking about doing a diversity of exercise (resistance training, yoga, walking, etc.) as adults in order to maintain physical fitness and mobility. This concept is just as important, if not more important, for adolescents in regards to skill transfer and injury prevalence.
What is the alternative to early sport specialization?
Typically, we advocate for 2 things: getting your child stronger/healthier and getting them to do something that they enjoy. We know that strength training does not stunt growth and is not inherently any more dangerous for a kid than it is for an adult. The benefits of strength and conditioning are countless and we love to see kids getting in better shape so that they can enjoy being a kid!
Second, we should be allowing kids to try all sorts of things. We should promote ways that they can be active and have fun. Instead of sport specialization at an early age, research suggests sport sampling or diversification as a better alternative. Sport sampling is just what it sounds like: playing multiple sports at an early age, rather than honing in to just one. Distefano et. al 2018 defines and discusses the benefits of sport sampling when they state that “[sport sampling] involves children trying a variety of sports and physical activities and has been emphasized as critical for appropriate motor and social skill development, future athletic success, lifelong physical activity, and reduced injury risk.”
Check out this blog of 15 “late bloomers” in professional sports that started their sport later in life, yet still went on to play professionally!
Overarchingly, when children play multiple sports in their early years, they can build a larger base of athleticism that will serve them well as they grow into their sport of choice. Is your child burned out from a single sport or facing an overuse injury? These could be the result of early sport specialization. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org today to talk to a physical therapist about the value of sport sampling in youth athletes and how this could help your child’s overall athleticism, motivation, and success in sports.