One-Sport Specialization for Young Athletes

Back when today’s children’s parents were children themselves, sports had seasons.  Football, field hockey, cross country, volleyball, and soccer in the fall; basketball, indoor track, and swimming in the winter; baseball, softball, outdoor track in the spring; and mostly, summers were a time to kick back take a break from sports.  These days, your child can almost play almost any sport almost year-round and in some cases, they could start doing this as young as eight or nine.

What is right for you and your child, as with many things, will be unique to your individual circumstances.  Tiger Woods is known for his focus on golf, of course, even at a young age, but he also played baseball, ran track and cross country (Golf Digest, May 2022).

There can be a lot of pressure to keep up with other players on the field (see our last blog on Mental Health [insert link please]).  And, too, a lot of pressure to make the right choice for you and your child about participation in multiple sports, versus participation in multiple sports.  And the timing of that decision.  You’re likely to consider not only the skills your child possesses, or might gain through a one-sport focus, but also whether your child is likely to have had enough experience to be committed to that one sport, without later on being distracted by other sports, feeling they might have missed out by not exploring others, or simply “burning out”.

“Sports have become another way for parents to keep up with the Jones, and it’s damaging childhoods,” said John O’ Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, an organization focused on youth sports. Even parents who aren’t looking to create the next Tiger Woods feel they have no choice but to buy into the trend reluctantly. “The most common fear I hear among parents is that if they don’t specialize early, their children will fall behind and never catch up,” said O’Sullivan.

The issue with specializing, say specialists, is the stress it puts on young athletes’ bodies. Overuse can permanently damage bones or muscles in young athletes before their bodies even finish growing. This could lead to long-term injury and physical and mental burnout in their chosen sport.

For example:

  • According to pediatric orthopedic specialists, children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes.
  • A study by Ohio State University found that children specializing early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit and suffer a lifetime of lingering injuries.
  • In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!

Recently, the NHL, NBA, NFL, NCAA, the US Olympic Committee and more high-profile sports leagues and organizations are pushing young athletes to practice and train for more than one specialty.

The real advantage is allowing your young athlete to play and train for more than one sport and to take a break from training for their primary sport. Parents can have a hand in ensuring their child isn’t risking their health or love of the game by specializing. Professional athletes, coaches and organizations support the advantages of multi-sport athletes.

Multi-sport athletes:

  • Have better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers and increased skills and mechanics. They are also more easily able to transfer their skills across sports.
  • Have better decision-making, pattern recognition and creativity. These are all skills many at higher levels of athletics look for.
  • A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child. (As did all of our coaches!)
  • Tend to lean on recreational play, or playing just for fun with friends or at nearby parks with peers. Children allowed recreational play also tend to spend more time engaged in a sport than athletes training solely in their specialized sport.

It can be tempting to spend the money and time to have your young athlete focused on just one sport, hoping it pays off with scholarships or a career in sports. But, studies and experience show that is not the case. Specializing at a young age can have detrimental effects on a young athlete, causing injury, burnout or even just a disdain for the sport overall.

Allowing your child to test other sports, train for physical activity outside of their primary sport and even take a break for a while provides far more opportunities for success — on the fields of play and in life.

Method Sports & Fitness focuses on developing student-athletes as a whole by building strength, explosiveness and speed which can benefit an athlete in any or all sports that they play. By targeting different areas of the body with individualized workout plans Method ensures the development of the athlete’s entire ability versus the muscles or skills needed for a single sport.

Changing the Game Project