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Early Sport Specialization

Organized Sports

I am sure we have all heard the success stories of Tiger Woods and Serena and Venus Williams - athletes who specialized at one sport at an early age and became dominant in their respective sports. For every celebrated success, there are countless untold stories of athletes who either a) became pro athletes, played multiple sports throughout their childhood and specialized later in adolescence (or even adulthood); or b) specialized in one sport early in childhood and did not have their dreams fulfilled (e.g., dropped out of sport in high school). In this blog, I will discuss and share research on early sport specialization that can inform evidence-based decisions for your athletes (coaches) and your own children (parents/families).


Benefits of Organized Sports


Participating in sports promotes health and physical fitness, while also providing the opportunity to interact with peers (Scheithauer et al., 2020). Shalala (2020) found that participating in sports leads to greater self-esteem, social integration, improved motor control, and an increased likelihood for maintaining healthy behaviours for a lifetime. What we also know is that optimal levels of physical activity and sport participation are generally associated with improved mental health outcomes in children and adolescents.


Early Sport Specialization - What Is It?

Early sport specialization refers to young individuals who focus exclusively on one sport at an early age. This often means a low amount of participation across other sports or the exclusion of all other sports altogether. Myer et al. (2015) defines early specialization as year-round training in one sport, possibly excluding other sports, which involves intense practice and training for more than 8 months in a calendar year. Early sport specialization is: a) training more than 8 months a year; 2) choosing a single main sport; and 3) quitting all sports to focus on one sport (Myer et al., 2015). Brenner et al. (2019) adds that early specialization typically results in year-round, high-intensity training.


Early Sport Specialization - What Does the Research Tell Us?

Gould (2009) states that the benefits of early sport specialization are:

  • Better coaching and skill instruction.

  • Enhanced skill acquisition through deliberate practice accumulation.

  • Improved time management.

  • Structured use of time in a productive way.

  • Enjoyment of sport and talent development.


There is, however, no evidence that specialization in a single sport has greater benefits to the physiological development of an athlete than participating in multiple sports (Kaleth & Mkesky, 2010). Baker (2003) suggests that when peak performance occurs at a younger age (e.g. figure skating, gymnastics), early specialization is a requirement for expert-level performance. Research conducted by Barynina and Vaitsekhovski (1992) as well as Wall and Cote (2007), found that athletes who engaged in early specialization often withdrew from their respective sports due to burnout.    


Malina (2010), and others (Brenner et al., 2019; Stracciolini et al., 2019), outlined many risks of sport specialization in youth sport:

  • Social Isolation - limited access to a variety of peers.

  • Overdependence - depend too much on adults in highly regulated sport activities; lack of unstructured play.

  • Burnout - cannot keep up with the physical, emotional and/or cognitive demands of one sport; high levels of stress and anxiety.

  • Adult Manipulation - coaches and/or parents manipulate children and youth by setting unrealistic expectations, convince children that doing one sport is best for high achievement and performance.

  • Increased Injury - either through overuse and/or poor coaching practices. Year-round participation in a single sport (especially those that involve repetitive movements like baseball, gymnastics, and tennis) can lead to overuse and cause injury in children and youth (DiCesare et al., 2019).  A study by Rugg et al. (2018), found that NBA players who were multi-sport athletes in high school were less like to have a major musculoskeletal injury than those who focused on only basketball - 25% (multi-sport) vs 43% (one-sport athletes).          

  • Decreased Enjoyment - Child or youth stop participating in sports due to negative experience(s) which leads to disengagement from further physical activity (DiCesare et al., 2019).

  • Decreased Family Time (Brenner et al., 2019) - reduced opportunities for quality family time.

  • Inadequate Sleep (Brenner et al., 2019) - Athletes who are goal oriented in their sport pursuits, are less likely to meet sleep recommendations than young athletes who participate in sport for fun or pleasure (Stracciolini et al., 2019).

  • Decreased Academic Achievement - may contribute, or be the result, of burnout (Brenner et al., 2019). In a study by , young athletes with high training volumes reported poor or just sufficient sleep quality, which was associated with poor academic performance (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018).  

Russell and Limle (2013) found that early specialization in childhood led to a decrease in sport activity in adulthood. Unfortunately, Coakley (2010) asserts that parents frequently become too involved in their child’s sports journey, promoting early sport specialization due to the association of "good parenting" with children's achievements. It is not uncommon for parents of children that are not specializing to feel that their child is falling behind their peers who began to specialize at an early age. Stracchan et al. (2009) studied youth athletes - specializers and samplers (participating in multiple sports) - they found that specializers reported more diverse peer relationships. Training various muscle groups by participating in, or “sampling,” multiple sports during childhood may result in greater overall athletic development (Brenner et al., 2019). 


Research has identified two major training volume recommendations for both months per year and hours per week of sport participation. The recommendations, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, state that youth should not play one sport more than 8 months per year, should not participate in more hours than their age of organized sport per week (e.g., a 10 year old should be spending a maximum of 10 hours of organized sport per week), and should not be participating in multiple leagues of the same or different sports at the same time. A survey of athletes found that athletes who exceed both the weekly hours and months per year volume recommendations, report a history of overuse injury (Post et al., 2017). In a Swiss study by Merglen et al. (2014), 16-20 year old athletes were surveyed. They found that the odds of poor well-being increased for athletes who trained more than 17.5 hours per week or less than 3.5 hours per week.


Gould (2009) believes that by the age of 16, an individual should have developed enough psychologically, physically, cognitively, motorically, and socially, to take part in highly specialized training in a single sport.


Structured Activities - Over-Scheduled?

Sometimes, parents do not have (or make the) time to spend with their children (e.g., high work demands). Reacting to a decline in quality time spent with their children, some parents, who have the financial means to do so, attempt to compensate by enrolling their child(ren) in more structured activities (Stewart & Shroyer, 2015). Too many structured activities, like organized sports, can take away from unstructured play as a form of physical activity. Research has shown that unstructured play contributes to a child’s overall wellbeing (physical, social and emotional) and development (Trimboli et al., 2021). Unstructured play, whether indoors or outdoors, enhances physical fitness, cognitive abilities, mental well-being, and overall happiness in children across diverse cultural backgrounds (Bento & Dias, 2017).


International School Context

Having worked in international schools for 10 years, I have seen children in these particular schools where nannies/domestic helpers often take the duty of the main person responsible for children outside of school hours. In most cases, at least one parent of the child attending the international school is busy working longer hours. It was not uncommon for me to see the same youth when I arrived at work at 7AM on campus already practicing in a sport and then leaving at the same time 11 hours later after these same youth played in a game or practice in a different sport. Making well-being of children and youth a priority is essential for their overall growth and development. Are schools, and in this case, international schools, preventing or promoting this over-programming of students? Does your school have limits on hours they can participate in a sport per week? 


Questions to Ponder

  1. Educators - does your school allow students to participate in multiple team sports over the course of one season? If so, is this hourly commitment to organized sport per week more than the age of the child?

  2. Coaches - are you advocating for “rest” from a sport or are recruiting players to join a club team to get these players to play more? 

  3. Sports Organizations - is anyone monitoring the amount of time athletes are putting into organized sports? Specifically, one specialized sport? Do athletes really need summer ice hockey? Or year round soccer/football? 

  4. Parents/Families - how can you best support your child/children so that they have movement experiences that are joyful, while also contributing to your child's positive well-being?

The Big Finish

While specialization may offer short-term benefits, its long-term consequences can bring many risks. Promoting sport/activity diversification, enjoyment, and holistic development, coaches, parents, teachers, and sport organizations can empower children and youth to thrive in sports and physical activities to lead healthy, balanced lives for a lifetime.


Guest Blog

If you would like to be featured as a blogger, don’t hesitate to reach out. Hearing some of the same perspective (e.g., me) can be redundant - my apologies. I would be really happy to contribute to a visual to help summarize your blog if you were wanting to contribute. You can reach me at downwithpe@gmail.com.


Membership Plan

If you want more information about what the website offers (both free and paid), check out the post here. We have added a Department Member option to support PE teams (up to 5 members of PE department for a reduced cost).


Thanks for reading!

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