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Delay Sport Specialization Until Late Adolescence, Experts Say

Early specialization not needed to reach elite level, delay optimizes chances of success, minimizes risk of injury and burnout


While some degree of sport specialization is required to achieve elite status, for most sports, intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to maximize chances of success while minimizing risk for overuse injury and burnout, recommends a new study. 

Female soccer player dribbling ball

Based on a review of previous studies discussing sports specialization (e.g. intense, year-round training in a single sport to the exclusion of others sports), researchers in at Loyola Chicago, Chicago Children's Memorial Hospital and Northwestern found that:

  • with the exception of gymnastics, in which peak performance occurs before full maturation and thus requires intense training before puberty, it has not been consistently demonstrated that early intense training is essential for attaining an elite level in all sports;
  • most elite athletes, including world-class athletes, are more likely to start intense training later in adolescence;
  • for most sports, early diversification is more likely to lead to success;
  • early diversification provides the young athlete with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promotes motivation;
  • early diversification followed by specialization may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries, and longer participation, contributing to the chances of success.
  • those soccer players who progressed to professional status at 16 years spent more time in unstructured soccer activities between the ages of 6 and 12 than those who did not;
  • spending more than 16 hours per week training significantly increased the risk of injury;
  • the risk of injury from intense training and specialization may be affected by age, competitive level, growth rate and pubertal maturation stage; and
  • early sports specialization may contribute to burnout and dropping out of sports.
The study appeared online ahead of print in the journal Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach.

Matter of debate

While "there is general agreement that the number of hours spent in deliberate training and practice positively correlates with level of achievement in both individual and team sports, whether this intense practice must begin during early childhood and to the exclusion of other sports is a matter of debate,"  writes lead author, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, a professor at Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago. 

The relative paucity of data has forced professional medical organizations (such as the National Athletic Trainers' Association and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine to base their position statements on sports specialization and intense training in youth athletes to rely instead on expert opinion.

Trend towards specialization 

But what is not debatable is that the general trend in the United States has been towards early sports specialization, as evidenced by:

  • the growing number of travel leagues at 7 or 8 years of age;
  • an increase in the number of young Olympic athletes; and
  • A 2011 study of 519 U.S. Tennis Association junior tennis players, which found that 7 in 10 began specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old, with the specialization rate gradually increasing after age 14 so that, by the time an elite tennis player reached age 18, 95% were playing just tennis.  With such increased specialization, however, did not come increased enjoyment and satisfaction, with ratings decreasing in players more than 14 years old.

As a result, "youth sports participation has evolved from child-driven, recreational free play for enjoyment to adult-driven, highly structured, deliberate practice devoted to sports-specific skill development," says the study, an evolution likely the result of "society's increasing regard for successful athletes, who enjoy significant recognition and financial rewards for their achievements." 

One percent 

The problem is that few achieve that success.  "The reality is that few athletes achieve the elite or professional level," notes Dr. Jayanthi, with less than 1% of young U.S. athletes 6 to 17 years of age achieving elite status in basketball, soccer, baseball, softball or football, rates similar to those in Germany and Australia.

DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner J, Gregory A, Jayanthi N, Landry GL, Luke A. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sports Med. 2014;24(1):3-20.  

Gullich A, Emrich E. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite sports system.  Eur J Sport Soc.

Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C.  Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 2012;20(10). DOI: 10.1177/1941738112464626 (published October 25, 2012 ahead of print). 

Jayanthi NA, Dechert A, Durazo R, Luke A.  Training and specialization risks in junior elite tennis players.  J Med Sci Tennis 2011;16(1):14-20. 

Malina RM. Early specialization: roots, effectiveness, risks.  Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010;9(6):364-371.

Metzl JD, Expectations of pediatric sport participation among pediatricians, patients, and parents. Pedatr Clin North Am 2002;49(3):497-504. 

Oldenziel KE, Gagne F, Gulbin J. Factors affecting the rate of athlete development from novice to senior elite: how applicable is the 10-year rule? Paper presented at 2004 Pre-Olympic Congress: Sports Science Through the Ages; August 2004; Thessaloniki, Greece.

Valovich McLeod TC, Decoster LC, Loud KJ, Micheli LJ, Parker JT, Sandrey MA, White C. National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Prevention of Pediatric Overuse Injuries. J Ath. Tr. 2011;46(2):206-220. 


Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.

She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.  

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