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Youth Sports Specialization: Beware These 4 Dangers!

“My son has struggled since he was in elementary school. Now he’s in high school and so exhausted he hasn’t even come out for the team.”

“My neighbor plays club basketball all year and is out indefinitely with stress fractures in her lower legs…”

“All I’ve ever played is football – now I’m not a beginner so I’m going to quit. I think it’s too late to start another sport now…”

Have you ever heard statements like these? I’m sad to say that I hear them too often. While the media is shouting about the Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams of the world, many people make the mistake of starting a sport at a young – or even very young – age and specializing in it. The lure of college scholarships has also convinced these people that specialization is the only way to become good at a sport.

Before someone decides to specialize, they should consider the dangers of participating in just one sport. Here are 4 dangers of specialization:

1. Overuse injuries: Stressing the body the same way over and over for all or most of the year can lead to overuse injuries. Stress fractures, compartment syndrome and other conditions often result from a lack of diversity in the activities of athletes. It’s best to challenge your body in different ways throughout the year to develop yourself as an athlete. Different sports will put different stressors on your body, resulting in better overall athletic performance. Pediatricians across the country have called on children to participate in a variety of physical activities.

2. Burn out: Playing sports day after day, week after week, year after year can lead to burn out at a fairly early age. Children are starting organized sports at younger and younger ages. Someone who plays hockey from the age of four may become tired and bored with the sport by the time they reach middle school or high school. Non-specialization provides breaks and other experiences to keep a primary sport interesting, challenging, and fun.

3. The Illusion of College Scholarships: As much as parents want their children to receive athletic scholarships, the truth is that a very small percentage of athletes actually achieve this goal. A scholarship by itself should not drive the choice to participate in a single sport. A person should not bet his health, happiness and future on the small chance of a “full turn”. The majority of athletes will benefit more from a variety of sporting experiences even if no scholarship offer ever comes. Also, most college scouts are looking for the best all-around athletes. One of their first questions is often, “What did you do other than play (insert main sport here)?” There is supporting evidence. For example, more than 75% of the football recruiting class of 2004 for the Wisconsin Badgers are listed as playing multiple sports in high school. Also look at the draft picks each year in the NFL. The majority of these players did not specialize in a sport during their high school career. How many times have you heard this on draft day: “We’re going to select the best overall athlete available…” Playing more than one sport is the best way to become that overall athlete.

4. Not Reaching Your Full Athletic Potential: While focusing on one sport will help you develop the sport-specific skills needed, you will not develop other athletic skills that transfer to your primary activity. Speed, balance, mental focus, jumps, twists are all challenged differently in different sports. Anything you do to become a better athlete will also make you a better player (insert sport here).

A growing body of research shows that early specialization does not guarantee athletic success. We hear of the few who thrive on early specialization, but what about the vast majority who don’t “go big” in their chosen sport? How many athletes can you think of who have succeeded by not specializing? How about Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrickson, John Elway and Marion Jones to name a few.

Sport should be encouraged from an early age. But, it’s best to encourage participation in a variety of sporting activities to develop athletic skills that carry over to all sports. It will reduce the dangers mentioned in this article, allow young athletes to reach their full athletic potential and, who knows, maybe get them that coveted college scholarship.

Copyright Tim Kauppinen 2005

This article is copyrighted, 2005, Tim Kauppinen. All rights reserved.

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