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Considerations for Early Sport Specialization

Many parents and coaches believe specializing early in sports as a means to increase the likelihood of their child progressing to the collegiate or professional level of sport. Adirim et al reports in the USA alone 30 million children will participate in an organized sport. Post et al aimed to explore the relationship between early sport specialization and risk of injury. Those athletes with more than 8 months of participation in a single sport realized the greatest risk of injury, athletes with more than 8 months of any organized sport were also at an increased risk of injury.

Other variables increasing markers for risk:

  1. Spending more hours in said sport per week than the age of the child (i.e. a 13 year old participating in more than 13 hours/week) and, 

  2. More than 16 hours/week of organized sport in general.

Believing that having an athlete specialize early in a sport will increase the likeness of playing at the next level is unfounded according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In a NCAA 2018 report, high school males have a conversion rate (i.e., progressing from high school to collegiate sport) ranging from <13% in lacrosse to <3% in wrestling. With females, the highest rate is 24.5% for ice hockey, while the lowest is 3.8% for basketball.

When researching evidence regarding those who do play in college we find they are less likely to specialize early. In a Division I University study by Post et al, <17% specialized by their freshman year and <42% by their senior year. Said differently, more than half of the athletes from this university played multiple sports throughout high school. We must consider just how many excellent 12 year old athletes end up becoming amazing adult athletes? 102 professional baseball pitchers surveyed by Wilhelm et al found those who specialized early were twice as likely to have suffered a serious injury than their non-specialized peers, additionally, the more specialized cohort specialized at just 8.9 years of age. 3090 high school, collegiate, and professional athletes in 2017 were surveyed by Buckley et al and reported an average age for professional and collegiate athletes to specialize was near 15, while high school athletes specialized before age 13. Athletes who throw at a higher velocity early realize an increased risk of injury while those who jumped higher were at twice the risk of injury as their less talented peers. By continuing to display a child's early success, we coaches, peers, and parents could be failing them.

With respect to the literature, encouraging our kids to be the best at an early age is becoming challenging, dare I write wrong, dangerous, or the like. Yet, it's becoming more clear that taking field and court and the like athletes from their sport and having them participate in resistance training is likely to make them better athletes. O’Kane et al showed playing on more than 1 soccer team increased the risk of injury by 2.5, while participating in multiple physical activities decreased the risk by 61%. Resistance training included, it should be stated that early sport specialization is detrimental in all sports.

Though not clearly defined, overuse injuries are multi-factorial. Milewski et al. published data showing those who average less than 8 hours of sleep are 1.7X more likely to get injured. A position statement released by DiFiori et al suggested that 45-54% of youth injuries are "directly related to overuse" (running responsible for 68%). While I do with much passion want and suggest our youth to resistance train, of course, this isn't the only activity they should participate in, it's likely practicing the sport is important, ya know.


Injuries and the like are multifactorial as seen in the biopsychosocial model. Wade DT et al on the model reported "Critically, it is now generally accepted that illness and health are the result of an interaction between biological, psychological, and social factors".

Psychological burnout as it relates to sport has been defined as:

- Sport-related exhaustion (persistent fatigue related to overtaxing in sport) and, - Sport-related cynicism (indifference or distal attitudes towards sports) and, - Feelings of inadequacy (perception of not performing as well as one used to).

Psychological burnout trends with the amount of time participated in sport, yet also with the expectations of performance. In 2017 Padaki et al aimed to quantify parents influence on early sport specialization. Findings showed 20.4% of the parents wanted their child playing as a professional, and 36.4% aimed they would play at the collegiate level. Expectations such as these are likely to translate into increased pressure on the youth. Of note, the average age of the athlete was just under 14 years, yet 72% already realized an overuse injury with 16.6% already having undergone surgery.

Perfectionism with respect to athletics as defined in the literature "striving for a flawless performance and setting exceedingly high standards of performance, accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior. Studies report the association between perfectionism and risk of injury in junior athletes and showed “the likelihood of sustaining an injury was increased by over two times for each one standard deviation increase in perfectionistic concerns.” - Madigan et al If we're not suggested to focus on perfect form or the like where do we focus? Mastery-driven. Sorkilla et al suggested goal setting with aims towards mastery; that is, goals primarily motivated by improvement or mastering a task. Mastery driven athletes showed more likeliness to practice adaptive behaviors, not quitting during failure, and having more positive emotions.



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