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Sports Specialization vs Sports Diversification in Youth Athletes

Written by Kurtis Caroll PT, DPT
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Kurtis CarrollEarly specialization in one sport has become a trend in youth athletes across the country. This shift is one that has young athletes training year round to develop a specialized skill be able to play at the highest level of competition. This new thought that one must train for one sport only to be and compete with the best comes from parents, coaches, social media and the players themselves. The psychological component plays a role as parents push for scholarships and players desire to be the best in their respective sports without understanding that early specialization could be more harmful than helpful.

kurtisWith more and more adolescents choosing to specialize in a sport before the age of 16 researchers have begun to take notice and look at the risk and occurrence of injury in youth athletes who choose to participate or practice in one sport year round. In one particular study researchers from Loyala University found that of 1200 athletes early specialization was one of the biggest predictors of future injury. In the study they found that of the 1200 athletes the ones who specialized were 70-93% more likely to be injured than those that played multiple sports. In another study pediatric orthopedic specialists found that 50% of overuse injuries occurred to athletes that specialized in one sport. If your young athlete did become injured it is important to seek out a physical therapist for a thorough evaluation to assist with there return to sports.

As more and more research is done about the risk of injury for athletes who specialize in one sport at an early age, it is important to note the importance and benefit for kids to diversify. In any arena whether it be sports, work, leisure we develop habits and patterns in how we move. The main reason behind why sports specialization can be detrimental is that children who are still growing and learning to move their bodies in coordinated patterns are only developing muscle groups in a specific range of skilled movements. This in turn leaves other muscles to become weakened and inefficient allowing the young athlete to be more susceptible to injury.

When you think of some of the greatest athletes to ever play their respective sports, Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Bo Jackson, and John Elway just to name a few, all of these players played multiple sports in middle school and high school, some even into college and the professional leagues. Here are some guidelines to help with youth athletes in determining how much to train and when specialization is something you should consider. Athletes younger than age 12 should spend 80% of their time in deliberate play and in other activities besides the chosen sport. From age 13-15 athletes should spend 50% of their time on other athletic/training programs and 50% on their chosen sport. At age 16 athletes who choose to specialize should still spend up to 20% of their time in non-specialized sport training or other recreational activities.

Resources:

National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute: NYSHSI

Mike Reinhold CSCS, PT: Mikereinhold.com

John O’sullivan: “Is it Wise to Specialize?”

American Academy of Pediatrics

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