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 indiv