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The Case for Sport Diversification Over Specialization


Over the last 30 years, participation in youth sports have increased over threefold in the United States (from 18 million participants in 1987 to over 60 million in 2008 and growing). Unfortunately, the number of multisport athletes have dropped precipitously. Leading to vast quantities of kids to specialize in one sport at early ages as a way to be part of travel teams and to work with the highest levels of coaches. However, specialized athletes are 2.25 times more likely to have overuse injuries than their non-specialized counterparts.

Sports Specialization is intense training in 1 sport while excluding others (Jayanthi, et. al.), and includes 3 factors:

  1. Year-round training (>8 months per year)

  2. Chooses a single main sport

  3. Quits all other sports to focus on one sport

While sport specialization does cause an immediate improvement in that one sport, it leads to a higher incidence of burnout, fatigue and overuse injuries, while not increasing the incidence of elite/professional level talent. “There is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status” (Jayanthi, et. al). Meanwhile, early sport specialization has been linked to overuse/repetitive motion injuries such as Little League shoulder, Little League elbow, Osgood Schlatter’s and Sever’s disease (due to repetive shear forces on the growth plate of the long bones), tendon and ligament microtrauma such as tendonitis, calcium deposits in the tendon and ligament injuries (due to high levels of cartilage formation in childhood) and poor growth rates during training due to energy deficits and repetitive motions in specialization.

Sport Diversification may be the solution. Sport Diversification is “participation in a variety of sports and activities through which an athlete develops multilateral physical, social and psychological skills” (Wiersma et. al).

Sport Diversification in children outweighs Specialization in the following ways:

  • Increases cognitive development

  • Improves coordination

  • Increases strength

  • Increases motivation/decreases burnout

  • Decreases the risk of injury

  • NO decrease in the potential for Elite Level Performance.

All types of sport participation benefits still outweigh the risks associated with specialization. Sport participation has been shown to develop self-esteem, leadership and relationships with teammates.

Pediatricians who encounter athletes younger than 18 years old who are considering specialization will give the following advice:

  1. The primary focus of youth sports should be to have fun and develop lifelong physical skills.

  2. Participating in multiple sports decreases the chance of injuries, stress and burnout in young athletes.

  3. For most sports, later specialization actually leads to a higher chance of accomplishing the child’s athletic goals.

  4. Early diversification and later specialization leads to a greater chance of lifelong sport participation, physical fitness and possibility of elite status.

  5. If a young athlete decides to specialize, special attention must be made to establish the child’s sport goals and must be distinguished from the goals of the coaches and parents.

  6. Parents should monitor training and practices to determine appropriate levels of frequency and intensity as related to their individual child, as each child’s tolerance is different and only the parents will know if their child is tolerating the activity well. Be your child’s health advocate above all else.

  7. Having at least 3 months off from their primary sport will improve the child’s physical and psychological recovery from the sport, and will better allow the child to grow and re-commit to that sport. These break periods are best performed in at least 1 month segments. The child may (and should) continue with other physical activities during these break periods.

So, if Sport Diversification is far superior to specialization, what do we do about the athlete who only wants to play one sport.

The US Olympic Committee recommends using the LTAD (Long-term Athlete Development) model, and to use these 5 stages of athletic development:

  1. Discover, Learn, and Play: Children ages 0-12 years should play as many sports as possible to see which sports they enjoy and develop skills required in each sport.

  2. Develop and Challenge: Children ages 10-16 years should continue in multiple sports, but begin to dwindle to 2-3 sports in which they will develop the skills needed across all sports. By playing multiple sports in this age bracket, athletes will develop the skills, agility and coordination needed to prevent injury.

  3. Train and Compete: Athletes ages 13-19 years old begin to learn what it means to train and drill to improve at their chosen sports which will help them excel in competition. Competition becomes a driving factor in continued participation in sports.

  4. Excel for High Performance or Participate and Succeed: Athletes ages 15+ begin to specialize in their chosen sport(s) and are now focused on winning and performing well.

  5. Mentor and Thrive: Athletes become lifelong players and teachers of their sports as they age. This stage is a natural extension of sport participation in youth, where adults continue their love of sports and teach the younger generation, including their children, nieces and nephews, and community athletes through support of a team, coaching and/or participation.

Despite all the recommendations, some athletes still specialize early. What can parents do to limit burnout, overuse injuries and help them succeed? For the already specialized athlete, parents should stress the following:

  • Encourage multiple sport participation until at least 13-14 years old (even if the athlete is participating with their friends as a social activity). Athletes should be 3 sport athletes to start and then go to 2 as they age if they begin to specialize.

  • Encourage outdoor free-play. Children need time to be outside making up their own games and rules as time to decompress from the structure of the sport while remaining active.

  • Take a PE role as a parent. Children are used to playing multiple games/sports in their school gym class, so when the family is outside together, play something different (not just practice their primary sport). One day, play soccer…another, tag…another, basketball…and so on.

  • Make the gym a SECOND (or Third) sport. If an athlete has already specialized, using a gym for weight training and agility training will allow them to strengthen and train to avoid injury, decompress while performing physical activities that are not directly related to their sport, and improve their well-rounded physical development.

While sport specialization seems to be the fast track to improve in a sport to obtain a scholarship, remember that 29 out of 32 first round picks in 2018 were multisport athletes in High School. The majority of professional sports teams (and even elite college programs such as the University of Alabama) place a high degree of emphasis on obtaining athletes who participated (and excelled) in multiple sports as those athletes are less likely to have injuries, possess more coordination and become more of a true athlete.

Sport diversification has life-long benefits by allowing adults to continue to participate in sports longer, teach (and play with) their children in all their chosen sports and limits long-term injury. Children (as well as adults) benefit from performing multiple activities that focus their energies on multiple angles of movement to limit injury and prevent burnout.

References:

Brenner, J.S. “Sport Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes” Pediatrics. 2016 Spetember, 138(3). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/3/e20162148

Caruso, T. “Early Sport Specialization versus Diversification is Youth Athletes” https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/ptq/early_sport_specialization_vs_diversification_in_youth/

Jayanthi, N et. al. “Sport Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations” Sport Health. 2013 May; 5(3): 251-257.

Sailor, S. “Reducing Risk in Sports: Avoinding sports specialization may decrease your risk of injuries and burnout” http://usatodayhss.com/2017/reducing-risk-in-sports-avoiding-sports-specialization-may-decrease-your-risk-of-injuries-and-burnout

Wiersma, LD. “Risks and benefits of your sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations.” Pediatric Exercise Science. 12(1): 13-22, 2000.

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