THE BLOG
01/14/2016 03:29 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2017

Myths of Sports Specialization

Athletics can provide some of the most rewarding experiences in a young person's life. Sports participation is frequently considered a great way to develop leadership skills, goal setting, discipline, self-confidence, camaraderie and an appreciation for individual and team accomplishments. And yet, the way we go about pursuing athletic achievements can affect our outcomes.

We have a strong athletic culture in the United States, and we are proud to stand behind our athletes as they push for success. Some of our greatest stories, movies and rags-to-riches scenarios showcase how sports can help a young athlete gain access to a better quality of life, higher education or a professional athletic career. The opportunity to develop relationships with coaches, athletic trainers, teammates and others who share the athlete's' vision is invaluable. Each of these individuals can help to shape young athletes and challenge them to accomplish their mental and physical best on the playing field.

While it's easy to recognize all the positive benefits of sports participation, it's important to ensure balance. Athletes who specialize in a certain sport very early miss out on the benefits of cross training and rest, which are critical to ensuring young athletes reach important short and long-term goals. We read, see and hear too many times how sports specialization can sideline an athletic career -- whether at the youth, college or professional levels.

Let's examine some of the myths about sports specialization perpetuated in athletic culture and compare them with evidence-based research.

Myth 1: Most college athletes specialized in one sport as a child.

The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) published results of a 2012 survey1 that found 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.

Myth 2: The only way for my child to be "good enough" is for her/him to focus specifically on one sport early in life.

Recent studies2,3 suggest just the opposite: Children who play multiple sports are more effective than those who specialized in a single sport during childhood and adolescence.

Myth 3: Children need to play their sport year-round to avoid getting out of shape, which could lead to injury.

According to a study4 by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University, early sport specialization is one of the strongest predictors of injury in children playing sports. Athletes in the study who specialized in one sport were 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports. Females who specialized in one sport early in life were found to have a higher risk of anterior knee pain disorders including Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson. They may also be more likely to sustain an ACL tear.

Myth 4: Kids who spend their time learning one sport as a child are more likely to stay active throughout their lives.

Children who specialize in one sport early in life were found to be the first to quit their sport and ended up having higher inactivity rates as an adult5.

Myth 5: 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.

Studies6,7,8,9 indicate that playing multiple sports actually results in longer playing careers, better confidence, motivation, motor control and athletic development, plus the ability to transfer these skills to other sports more easily.

Myth 6: The only way to learn to love a sport is to specialize early and focus on getting better in that sport.

Early specialization may lead to a greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment10,11,12,13.

Research suggests that athletes can actually benefit from playing multiple sports by decreasing risk of overuse injuries and developing complementary skills. Consider the football player who had a higher chance of sustaining a shoulder injury had he not had a break from football during the baseball season, or the soccer player who developed the muscular strength and coordination necessary to avoid a serious knee injury by learning to jump as a basketball player. Had you asked these athletes to specialize early in life, the statistics tell us that at least one of them would have dropped out of sport completely due to burnout.

This sounds great hypothetically, but do these cases actually exist? Yes, they do. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was drafted by the Montreal Expos out of high school. Olympic gold medalist soccer player Mia Hamm played football, basketball and baseball as a youth. Eight-time NBA All-Star Steve Nash grew up playing soccer and didn't even start playing basketball until age 12. Those are just a few of the current sports stars who grew up playing multiple sports.

How much specialization is appropriate?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published recommendations14 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 months off from organized sport per year to engage in strength and conditioning, let lingering injuries heal and refresh the mind.

I believe the benefits of sport diversification in childhood have been shown to outweigh those found with sport specialization. Let's help children explore various sports rather than discouraging it. It will help them become well-rounded, well-conditioned, all-around athletes while promoting the importance of a balanced approach to athletics and life.

References:
1. DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner J, Gregory A, Jayanthi N, Landry GL, Luke A. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sports Med. 2014;24(1):3-20.
2. Abbott, A., Collins, D., Sowerby, K. & Martindale, R. (2007). Developing the Potential of Young People in Sport: A report for sportscotland by The University of Edinburgh, sportscotland: Edinburgh.
3. Fransen, J., Pion, J., Vandendriessche, J., Vandorpe, B., Vaeyens, R., Lenoir, M., & Philippaerts, RM. (2012). Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6‐12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport. Journal of Sport Sciences, 30, 379‐386.
4. Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., & Luke, A. (2011). The Risks of Sports Specialization and Rapid Growth in Young Athletes. 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. April 30th-May4th, Salt Lake City, Utah.
5. American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (2013, April 23). Effectiveness of early sport specialization limited in most sports, sport diversification may be better approach at young ages. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2013/04/130423172601.htm
6. Carlson, R. C. (1988). The socialization of elite tennis players in Sweden: An analysis of the players' backgrounds and Development, Sociology of Sport Journal, 5, 241‐256;
7. Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, 7‐17.
8. Russell, W.D., & Limle, A.N. (2013). The relationship between youth sport specialization and involvement in sport and physical activity in young adulthood. Journal of Sport Behavior, 36, 82‐98.
9. Weirsma, L.D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12, 13-22.
10. Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S. and Loehr, J. (1996). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: A quantitative psychological assessment. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 322-340.
11. Côté, J. & Fraser‐Thomas (2008). Play, practice, and athlete development. In Farrow, D., Baker, J., & MacMahon, C. (Eds.), Developing Sport Expertise (pp. 17‐28). New York: Taylor and Francis.;
12. Jayanthi, N. (December, 2012). Injury risks of sports specialization and training in junior tennis players: A clinical study. Paper presented at the Society for Tennis and Medicine Science North American Regional Conference, Atlanta, GA.;
13. Law, M., Côté, J. and Ericsson, K.A. (2007). Characteristics of expert development in rhythmic gymnastics: A retrospective study. International Journal of Exercise and Sport Psychology, 5, 82-103.
14. Joel S. Brenner. Pediatrics Jun 2007, 119 (6) 1242-1245; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2007-0887.