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Early Sport Specialization

What is Early Sports Specialization?

Early Sports Specialization can be defined as “ intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports'' (Jayanthi et. al 2013). Early sports specialization typically begins in early elementary aged children with a focus on intense training in one sport, but it is important to consider this definition as a sort of continuum with varying training volumes and beginning ages amongst youth athletes.

The emergence of early sports specialization may be attributed to a famous study by Ericcson that defined what many people know of as the “10,000 hour rule.” Ericsson found that those who began a skill at an early age (younger than 7 years old) combined with deliberate practice (5,000-10,000 hours ) were more likely to become experts at the skill.

However, this study was conducted on musicians, not athletes and no specific amount of hours or starting age was definitely tied to expertise. Thus, the study, “does not necessarily indicate how to become a better athlete, which often requires a diverse set of skills, and appropriate physical development” (Ferguson et. al 2014).

Many parents believe they’re doing their kid a favor by starting them in a year round sport at an early age. It will give my child a competitive edge and a better chance to play in college right? But specializing in one sport at an early age may be disadvantageous in regards to a kid’s risk of injury, mental health, and chance of success in sport later on.

What does the research say?

  • Playing multiple sports may make you better at a singular one.

  • Wait, shouldn’t I dedicate all my time to one sport, starting at an early age, if I want to play at the college or professional level? Actually,the literature says no. It sounds backwards that playing multiple sports has the potential to make you better at a single one. Yet, research found that, “the greater the number of activities that the athletes experienced and practiced in their developing years (ages 0-12 years), the less sports-specific practice was necessary to acquire expertise in their sport. This is the transfer of pattern recall skills from one sport to another, most pronounced during the early stages of involvement. Early diversification followed by specialization may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries, and longer participation, contributing to the chances of success” (Jayanthi et. al 2013).

  • You don’t have to specialize early to play at the elite level.

  • In a study done on 376 female division I college athletes, only 17% were found to have specialized in one sport. The majority of college athletes played multiple sports growing up (Malina et. al 2010).

  • Risk of burnout and psychological fatigue are more likely if you specialize in a singular sport early in childhood.

  • As children age, specifically around the age of 14 years old, specialization rates increase (obviously one must dedicate time to a singular sport in order to master it), but satisfaction and enjoyment in the sport simultaneously decrease (Jayanthi et. al 2013).

  • Risk of injury is higher with early sports specialization.

  • Recently, Jayanthi et al. (120) revealed a heightened risk of injury when youth participated in more hours of sports practice per week than their number of years in age, or whereby the ratio of organized sports to free play time was in excess of 2:1.

What is the alternative to early sport specialization?

Instead of sport specialization at an early age, research suggests sport sampling or diversification as a better alternative. Sport sampling is just what it sounds like: playing multiple sports at an early age, rather than honing in to just one. Distefano et. al 2018 defines and discusses the benefits of sport sampling when they state that “[sport sampling] involves children trying a variety of sports and physical activities and has been emphasized as critical for appropriate motor and social skill development, future athletic success, lifelong physical activity, and reduced injury risk.”

Having your child play multiple sports will build a larger base of athleticism that will serve them well as they grow into their sport of choice. Is your child burned out from a single sport or facing an overuse injury? These could be the result of early sport specialization. Reach out to today to talk to a physical therapist about the value of sport sampling in youth athletes and how this could help your child’s overall athleticism, motivation, and success in sports.

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