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Early Sport Specialization: Does It Lead To Long-Term Problems?

Sports specialization, including year-round sport-specific training, participation on multiple teams in the same sport and focused participation in a single sport, is increasing in preadolescent children around the world, but leads to long-term problems, argue the authors of a recent editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.[1].

Risks of sport specialization

Sport specialization in youth, suggests A. Mehrfan Mostafavifar, MD of the Department of Internal Medicine at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and his colleagues:

  • may lead to reduced motor skill development, as young athletes focus on the motor skill needed for their sport but ignore the motor skills developed by playing a variety of sports;  Boys holding basketball, football and soccer ball
  • pose tangible risks, including cardiac, musculoskelatal, nutrition, sexual maturation, and burnout;
  • result as many as half of the overuse injuries seen by pediatric sports medicine physicians which "may provide a deterrence for future physical activity." 
  • results in burnout and kids dropping out of sports, and reduced development of lifetime sport and fitness;  and
  • by pushing children beyond the limits of their abilities and interests, may contribute to physical inactivity across the lifespan.
"The efforts to specialize youth sports underlie the effects of reduced general opportunity for all children to participate in a diverse, year-round sports season, ... possibly leading to lost development of lifetime sports skills.  Those lost opportunities for 'fun' focused physical activity during youth likely contribute to deficits in current and long-term physical activity and health," says Mostafavifar.

Benefits of diverse sports participation

Delayed sports specialization provides enhanced opportunities for youth development, says Mostafavifar: 

  • Participation in a variety of sports is beneficial in terms of physical, psychological and social development because it promotes diverse relationships and experiences;
  • As adolescents grow into young adults, their multiple sports background can expand their adult physical activity options and foster an intrinsic interest in lifelong sports participation;
  • Youth who participate in multiple sports not only gain from their diverse experiences, they may be less likely to drawn into a specific sport culture that is focused more on winning than overall child development;>
  • The likelihood of sports-related injuries and burnout is reduced.

Early specialization: strong injury predictor

At a recent Aspen Institute round-table entitled "Early Positive Experiences: What is Age-Appropriate?" held as part of its Sports & Society Program's Project Play initiative,[2] Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, an orthopedist at Loyola University (Chicago), said that early specialization in one sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury: "We followed about 1,200 kids, all young athletes, and ... we found a highly significant risk of injury and also serious overuse injuries that would keep kids out for one to six months based on participation levels, and that was independent [of] hours devoted to the sport per week. So the fact that you specialized, that alone increased (injury) risk. The odds of that happening are anywhere from 70 percent to 93 percent greater" than with child athletes who do not specialize," he said.

1. Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long term problems?  Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1060-1061. 

2. Tom Farrey. Roundtable Summary. "Early Positive Experiences: What is Age-Appropriate?"  September 4, 2013. Aspen Institute.


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