Sports Specialization

Encouraging kids to play sports starting at a young age is beneficial for their social, emotional and physical health. Participating in sports is a great way to boost self-esteem, build confience, mold character, and lower stress. Exercise in general can help decrease the risk for obesity and high blood pressure.

Young athletes may develop a passion for one sport in particular, and may consider playing just that one sport. This is called sports specialization.

Sports specialization consists of year-round training (more than 8 months per year) of a single sport and often involves quitting all other sports to focus on that one pursuit.

Athletes considering sports specialization should really weigh the risks and rewards to make an informed decision.

Benefits of sports specialization

Many coaches, parents and children believe that the best way to become an elite athlete is to participate in only one sport from an early age and to play it year-round.

You might want to go the route of sports specialization for any of these reasons:

  • Improving skills to an elite level.

  • Making all-star teams or travel teams.

  • Gaining exposure to recruiters.

  • Receiving a scholarship.

Risks of sports specialization

However, parents and coaches should be cautious about encouraging sports specialization to kids at a young age.

Some consequences of sports specialization include the following:

  • Risking serious overuse injury.

  • Burning out.

  • Decrease in performance due to over-training.

  • Limiting sports skill development.

  • Reducing motor skill development.

  • Cost.

Parents should also be aware of coaches that push their athletes too hard, which is more likely when a young athlete is playing just one sport. Constant pressure or critical instruction from coaches can limit an athlete’s mental development and hamper their ability to feel confident on the field or court.

Coaches of youth sports should be vigilant of any signs of stress, burnout and other physical symptoms in these athletes. If they spot any of these red flags, they need to take corrective action, such as backing off training intensity and frequency.

It's important to note that all of the benefits of sports specialization are perceived and there is no evidence that specializing in one sport will truly make an athlete elite but more and more research is showing the physical, mental, and psychosocial impact of sports specialization.

The National Athletic Training Association has emphasized sports specialization as an evolving health issue in adolescent and young athletes and has released the following recommendations:

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