Sport Specialization Among Young Athletes
Sport participation can offer several benefits to children and adolescents when dosed appropriately. But, over the past several years, youth athletics has changed considerably. It has changed from child-driven, fun recreational play for enjoyment to adult-driven, highly structured practice dedicated to sport-specific skill development. Young athletes have been challenged with growing competiveness in youth sports, pressures from adult coaches/parents, and desire to get a “leg-up” on competitors and become a collegiate and/or a professional athlete. With seasons being longer and parents being encouraged to sign their child up for several organized club sports, youth athletes are at an increased risk of overuse injuries and burnout.
So, the question becomes, should youth athletes specialize in one sport or play several sports? This is a question that we as physical therapists often get asked. In addition to this, a large percentage of our patient population are adolescent athletes who came into the clinic with an overuse injury. Prior to discussing this in further detail, it is important to define these key terms. Single-sport specialization is defined as “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age”. Multi-sport participation is defined as “participation in a variety of sports and activities through which an athlete develops multilateral physical, social, and psychological skills”.
Single-sport specialization has been linked to an increased risk of overuse injuries and burnout. Theories have been proposed that the earlier an individual starts with purposeful practice of a skill, the earlier one becomes an expert at the skill. However, this is not necessarily true. There are several factors that need to be considered prior to specializing in one sport, such as motivation, interest, growth/injury risk, and burnout.
- A child needs to have interest to learn and be motivated to dedicate themselves to just one sport.
- Children are still growing which means their tissues can be vulnerable to overuse and repetitive load, potentially leading to pain/injury. This is especially true if they are engaging in the same movement patterns with just playing one sport throughout all seasons.
- Playing just one sport can be not only physically demanding, but mentally challenging as well, which can often times lead to burnout or early withdrawal from the sport.
Multi-sport participation involves playing various sports in different seasons. This offers the young athlete the opportunity to learn new skills and activate different muscle groups while decreasing the risk of injury from repetitive overuse.
- Multi-sport participation is believed to allow for quicker development of physical and cognitive abilities due to a potential crossover effect.
- Athletes can learn or enhance their hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, and explosiveness by participating in a variety of sports.
- Athletes can learn life skills through having to communicate with different teammates and coaches as well as having to understand and implement different strategies for different sports.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA), and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) all advise against specializing in a single sport before adolescence. These organizations have developed the following recommendations regarding potential risks of overtraining, sport specialization, and preventable overuse injuries.
- Become involved in a regular preseason and/or in-season conditioning and fitness program that focuses on injury prevention
- Have at least 1 day off per week from practices, sport-specific training, and games.
- Compete in only one sport during a season at a time. Avoid competing on multiple teams of different sports that would involve more than 5 days per week of participation.
- Take at least 3 months off (not necessarily in a row) from competing in sports throughout the year.
- Do not specialize in a single sport until middle or late adolescence.
- Total hours of organized sports per weeks should be less than twice the number of hours playing recreational activities.
- The total hours of organized sports per week should be less than or equal to a child’s age in years (e.g. 12-year old who participates in soccer for only 10 hours during a typical week, not more than 12 hours).
- The total hours of organized athletic activity should be less than 16 hours/week.
It is important for us to consider the following guidelines and potential effects of overuse and over training prior to specializing in one-specific sport. If you have any questions regarding youth sports specialization, feel free to give Omaha Physical Therapy Institute a call today!
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Ashlie Guarino Eckmann, PT, DPT
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