Article Contributed by:
Dr. Daniel McGovern, Next Level Physical Therapy, Board Certified Sports Physical Therapist
During Spring 2017 to Fall 2018 high school sports seasons, Boston’s South Shore teams won five state championship titles. After interviewing the coaches of each team, it was clear that the vast majority of the starters from each team did not specialize in a single sport.
Abington Softball: 80% of starters played two or more high school sports.
Norwell Girls Lacrosse: 83% of starters played three sports, and 100% played two or more.
Cohasset Boys Lacrosse: 92% of starters played two or more sports
Norwell Girls Soccer: 11 starters, nine played (82%) more than one sport, and six (55%) were three-sport athletes. A total of 23 players out of 27 (85%) on the roster played more than one sport.
Scituate Football: 82% of starters played two or more sports.
Although a small sample, the results from these local teams support the premise that there is not a need for early specialization in a sport, and multi-sport athletes may enhance team success. As the sports physical therapist for Boston College Athletics, I often ask the athletes about their high school sports participation. Most athletes reported playing more than one sport and did not opt for “early specialization” in their sport.
Sports Specialization means choosing a single primary sport, where year-round training exceeds eight months per year. And in many cases, it requires quitting all other sports to focus on that one sport.
Youth athletes may choose to specialize in one sport due to a variety of reasons. Near the top of this list is pressure from parents and coaches to focus on a single sport with a collegiate athletic scholarship as the goal. Please keep in mind that a mere 7.5% of high school athletes play at any level in the NCAA, and those that receive scholarships are even less.
Early Sport Specialization is not beneficial for high-level athletic performance at the professional, Olympic, or national team level. Some studies show that Sport Specialization may even be detrimental to an athlete. Researchers have determined that a vast number of elite-level athletes engaged in multiple sports during childhood and did not specialize in their primary sport until significantly later.
There also is no evidence to support the theory that early competitive athletic success will lead to or predict long-term athletic accomplishment. The child that “dominates” the U8 soccer team or the squirt hockey team is not guaranteed to have the same success in high school. The “late bloomers” need to be encouraged and developed to avoid dropping out of sports at a young age.
Specialized training in young athletes results in more significant risks of physical injury and psychological burnout.
There is a positive correlation with the degree of specialization and the increased risk of developing a severe overuse injury.
Some of the risk factors for injury in specialized young athletes include:
Year-round, single-sport training
Participation in more competitions (tournaments)
Decreased age-appropriate play (pick-up games)
Involvement in individual sports such as figure skating and gymnastics that require the early development of technical skills.
An 8-year study of first-round NBA draft picks showed a distinct difference between multi-sport high school athletes and those who specialized. The multi-sport players were less likely to sustain a major injury, played in a higher percentage of games, and had longer professional careers. Only 25% of multi-sport players suffered a major injury during their NBA careers, compared with 43% of the specialized players.
Dr. Adam Naylor, Mental Game Consultant for Northeastern University Sports Performance and Telos Sport Psychology Coaching, believes that “Early sport specialization has the potential to have negative psycho-social impacts on the developing athlete. While specialization before teenage years might appear to benefit the athlete’s physical performance, it puts the athlete at risk of losing the passion for the sport, risking burnout, and potentially lead to dropout.”
How can the physical and psychological risks of Sports Specialization be monitored?
Researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital suggest that: youth athletes should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports during their growing years. This tact will influence the development of diverse motor skills and identify a sport, or sports, that the child enjoys.
Parents should encourage their children to play multiple sports before the age of 12 and to give their children a voice about the sports in which they want to participate.
Additional recommendations include:
Youth athletes should not play one sport more than eight months per year
They should not participate in more hours of organized sport per week than their age (i.e., a 10-year-old should not participate in more than 10 hours of organized sport per week)
Youth athletes should not participate in multiple leagues of the same or different sports at the same time.
Those who are specialized in sports activities and participate in more than the suggested hours per week, or more than 16 hours per week in intense training, should be closely monitored for indicators of burnout.
As studies show, the decision to specialize in a single sport at a young age does not result in long-term success. In fact, Sports Specialization often increases the risk of physical injury and negative psycho-social impact.
Dr. McGovern, a board-certified sports physical therapist, is the owner of Next Level Physical Therapy . In addition to his practice, Dan is the sports physical therapist with Boston College Athletics as well as other academic and healthcare organizations.
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