Early Sports Specialization
What Is Early Sports Specialization (ESS)?
Early sports specialization is defined by the American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine by three criteria1
- Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sports >8 months per year,
- Participation in one sport to the exclusion of participation in other sports (limited free play overall), and
- Involving prepubertal children (seventh grade or ~12 years)
Why Do Youth Athletes Specialize?
Studies show that 17-47% of children specialize in a certain sport.2 The main benefit of specialization is the assumption that greater devotion to one sport creates a higher skill level which might help an athlete make a certain competitive team, earn a college scholarship, or have a professional career. However, research investigating the requirement of early specialization for elite performance is not convincing, with the exception of sports where peak competition occurs at an earlier age, such as gymnastics, dance, and figure skating.1
Early Sports Specialization Can Be Detrimental
- Specific Movement Patterns, especially repetitive movements, can increase injury risk and impede overall athletic development
- Each sport has distinct loading patterns and movements which can be associated with overuse injuries1
- Specialization puts more emphasis on developing sport-specific skills vs functional movement skills, which are more beneficial for overall health and athletic performance
- Overtraining can increase injury risk
- Participating in one sport for 8 months of the year, with only short breaks between seasons, does not allow the body adequate recovery time between seasons
- A 2017 study showed that highly specialized athletes were 85% more likely to sustain a lower extremity injury than those with low specialization2
- Social Isolation
- Participating in a sport, especially at a high level, can involve daily practices and/or games for months, with only small breaks between seasons. Between recreational and club teams, some athletes even participate in two teams for the same sport within the same season. This overscheduling can limit a child’s time to spend with people outside of sports, which can lead to social isolation.
- Burnout and Sports Withdrawal
- Overscheduling can also lead to burnout, as a child has less time to pursue other interests and hobbies, relax and mentally recharge, and spend time with friends and family
- Participating in just one sport can decrease a child’s interest in said sport over time in some cases. Sometimes this withdrawal can become so severe that it limits a child’s desire to participate in any physical activity, which can have serious health consequences in the future.
What is Sports Sampling?
In contrast, sports sampling, or the participation and engagement in more than one sport during childhood3, has many positive effects:
- Improved overall athletic abilities
- Longer duration of sport sampling positively influences development of functional movement skills, which may decrease injury risk and improve sport performance
- A 2017 study assessing jump landing mechanics in specialized vs multi-sport adolescent athletes saw that multisport athletes were 5.4-5.8 times as likely to have good landing control compared to more specialized athletes3
- Promotes physical literacy and enjoyment of sport/play, which contributes to better long term health
- Confidence and socialization with several different groups of people
- Evidence has shown that early sport specialization increases injury risk, has mental health consequences, and is not a requirement for elite athletic performance.
- In contrast, multisport participation is associated with less injury risk, has not been shown to diminish the competitive potential of an athlete, and might actually promote greater overall athletic performance.
- Ultimately, while research supports sports sampling over specialization, every child and every situation is different, and you must make the choices that are best for your child.
If you have any questions about this post or would like to speak with a physical therapist about an injury, give us a call at (978) 263-0007 or, use the contact form on our website. We would be happy to answer any questions and discuss possible next steps.
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- LaPrade RF, Agel J, Baker J, et al. AOSSM early sport specialization consensus statement. Orthop J Sports Med. 2016; 4(4). DOI: 10.1177/232596711644241.
- McGuine TA, Post EG, Hetzel SJ, Brooks MA, Trigsted S, Bell DR. A prospective study of the effect of sport specialization on lower extremity injury rates in high school athletes. Am J Sports Med. 2017; 45(12):2706-12. DOI: 10.1177/0363546517710213.
- DiStefano LJ, Beltz EM, Root HJ, Martinez JC, Boyle S, Trojian TH. Sport sampling is associated with improved landing technique in youth athletes. Sports Health. 2017; 10(2): 160-68. DOI: 10.1177/1941738117736056.