April 19, 2017

Specialization in Youth Athletes: Three Myths and Three Tips

By Mary Helen Letterle

According to the 2008 National Council of Youth Sports, 60 million youth aged 6 through 18 years participated in organized sports. Over the last 25 years, youth sports participation has shifted from child-driven, recreational free play for enjoyment to adult-driven, highly structured, deliberate practice devoted to sports-specific skill development.

This increased emphasis on sports specialization has led to more overuse injuries, overtraining and burnout. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than 3.5 million children aged 14 and younger are treated for sports-related injuries, and overuse injuries account for up to 50 percent, making injury prevention a top priority for Mission Sports Medicine.

Participation in only one sport can result in an increased risk for repetitive micro-trauma and overuse; multisport athletes who do not get adequate rest between activities or between seasons, and those who participate in two or more sports that emphasize the same body part are at higher risk for overuse injuries than those in multiple sports with different emphases.

That’s why the experts at Mission Sports Medicine advocate for diversity in sport participation, delayed specialization, and the promotion of a variety of activities and experiences to aid in the mental and physical development of young athletes.

Myth 1: My child needs to specialize in one sport in order to play in college or professionally. 

  • FACT – Only 3.3 percent to 11.3 percent of high school athletes compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) level, and only 1 percent receive an athletic scholarship. Furthermore, only 0.03 percent to 0.5 percent of high school athletes make it to the professional level. According to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), a 2012 survey found that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child. At the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, 87 percent of the athletes played multiple sports in high school and 13 percent only played football.
  • TIP – Break out of the mold. Even when the athlete is driven to take his or her game to the next level, evidence is mounting that specialization in a single sport before puberty may not be the best way to accomplish this goal for the majority of sports. Young athletes should be encouraged to engage in physical activities that don’t necessarily utilize the same repetitive motions as their chosen sport(s). For instance, swimming, biking, climbing and hiking are great ways to break out of the norm and improve overall fitness. It’s also a great opportunity for young athletes to simply do what they’re meant to do – be kids.

Myth 2: Children need to play their sport year round to avoid getting out of shape and to keep up their skills on the field. 

  • FACT – Early sport specialization is one of the strongest predictors of injury in children playing sports. Athletes who specialize in one sport are 70 percent to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who play multiple sports.
  • TIP – Take a break. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following guidelines to reduce the risk of overtraining and onset of potential overuse injuries:
    • Limit one sporting activity to five days per week.
    • Take one day off from all organized physical activities per week.
    • Take two to three consecutive months off from organized sport per year to engage in strength and conditioning, let lingering injuries heal and refresh the mind.

Myth 3: The only way to develop skills in a sport is to adopt that sport early and spend time training to be better in that specific sport. 

  • FACT – Although sports specialization, in general, leads to higher athletic “success,” the optimal timing of specialization is only now becoming clearer. Current evidence suggests that delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence, ~15 or 16 years of age) will minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success. Early diversification allows the athlete to explore a variety of sports while growing physically, cognitively, and socially in a positive environment and developing intrinsic motivation.
  • TIP – Diversify. Encourage your child to participate in a variety of fitness and athletic activities. The US Olympic Committee, along with National Governing Bodies, used the long-term athlete development (LTAD) principles to create the American Development Model in 2014. The five stages they created include the following:
    • Discover, Learn and Play (ages 0–12)
    • Develop and Challenge (ages 10–16)
    • Train and Compete (ages 13–19)
    • Excel for High Performance or Participate and Succeed (age ~15)
    • Mentor and Thrive (for life)

Mary Helen Letterle is an athletic trainer and the Manager of Mission Sports Medicine.

The Mission Orthopedics AOA Walk-in Clinic accepts athletes and weekend warriors of all kinds Monday through Friday from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm. Learn more here.