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Early Sports Specialization No Guarantee of Future Athletic Success

One of the reasons often cited for early specialization in a single sport or travel team play at an early age is that it increases the chances that the child will be a successful athlete as a teen or an adult. Youth baseball team in dugout having fun

Simply put, this reason, like all the others, is not supported by the facts:

  • There is no hard scientific evidence that playing a single sport before the age of twelve or participating in a select sports program at an early age guarantees future athletic success.
  • While research does show that elite athletes often start their involvement in their sport at an early age, it also shows that most played a number of other sports when they were young. 
    •  A 2012 study1 found that boys aged 10 to 12 who spent many hours playing a variety of sports were more physically fit and had better gross motor coordination than boys specializing in a single sports. 
    • A 2003 study2 of elite athletes in field hockey, basketball and netball reported that athletes who required fewer hours of sports-specific practice to attain expertise had participated in many sports activities prior to reaching an expert level.
    • A 2009 study3 found that Olympic world-class athletes started training, competing, and participating in international competitions later and competed in more sports other than their primary sport than peers performing at a national level.
    • Indeed, some studies actually suggest that those who specialize at a later age have more success. For every successful athlete who specialized at an early age there is one who didn't or who succeeded despite having come to a sport as a teenager or even later.
    • These studies have led some experts to conclude that, far from hindering future athletic performance, participation in a variety of sports between ages 6 and 12 and engaging in deliberate play activities designed to maximize enjoyment through less structured play and age-adapted rules is beneficial for athletic development because of the exposure to a number of different physical, cognitive, affective, and psycho-social environments, reinforces physical, personal and mental skills needed for future successful sport specialization.1, 4 
  • Playing different sports allows an athlete to develop a variety of transferable motor skills such as jumping, running, twisting, which ultimately help them become better at their chosen sport.1, 4 It also exposes an athlete to different coaches with different coaching styles, philosophies and personalities.
  • Focusing on a single activity also puts all of a young athlete's eggs in one basket. If kids don't try other sports, how do they know whether or not they might like those sports more or be better at them? There is also an increased risk, if an athlete specializes too early, that he will find out (too late) that he doesn't like the sport in which he has specialized. By postponing specialization and playing a number of different sports, your child will be better able to choose the sport he will enjoy the most and in which he ultimately have the most success

1. Fransen J, Pion J, et al. Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6-12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport.  J Sports Sci. 2012:DOI:10/1080/02640414.2011.64280 (available online Jan 3 2012).

2. Baker J, Cote J, Abernathy B.  Sport-specific practice and the development of expert decision-making in team ball sports.  J Apsp. Sport Psych. 2003;15:12-25.

3. Vaeyens R, Gullich A, Warr C.R, Phillippaerts R.  Talent identification and promotion programmes of Olympic athletes.  J. Sports Sci. 2009;27:1367-1380.

4. Coté J., Lidor R, Hackfort.  Seven postulates about youth sports activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. Int'l J. Sport and Exercise Psych. 2009;9:7-17.

Updated January 17, 2017

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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