Youth Sport Specialization: How Much is too Much?

Youth Soccer Baseball Kids Sports Playing Young Athletes

A researcher on the consequences of single sport specialization said it best: “A culture [in America] has been created in which the definition of success in youth sports is defined not by laying the foundation for a healthy lifestyle, but rather the attainment of ‘elite’ status.” (1)

Hard to hear, right? But it’s true. Whether you’re a parent or grandparent, a coach, sports fan or maybe even an athlete yourself, surely you’ve noticed a shift in youth sports over recent years. Gone are the days of pick-up games and kids getting into physical activities for fun. How often do you see kids shooting hoops in the driveway anymore? How many student-athletes are playing 2-3 different sports throughout the year, not playing for a club team and actually taking summer off from any competitive sport? It’s rare. And the shift from sports specialization at a young age is unfortunately leading to a drastic increase in sports-related injuries.

Although a standardized definition of sports specialization has not been developed, the term implies year-round intensive training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports. (2)

Calculating the Risk

Here’s a quick survey to categorize the level of sports specialization:

  • Q: Can you pick a main sport?
  • Q: Did you quit other sports to focus on a main sport OR have you only ever played one sport?
  • Q: Do you train more than 8 months a year in your main sport?
  • If you answered ‘yes’ to all three questions, you’re in the high specialization group. Although these questions don’t necessarily capture all of the information needed to determine accurate specialization, it can give some insight into whether an athlete may be susceptible to the risks, which we’ll go into later.

    So, how much of one sport is too much? While there’s no set number that can be applied to all youth, recent studies have shown that athletes who played their primary sport greater than 8 months of the year were more likely to report an overuse injury. (3) Additionally, athletes who played one sport for more hours per week than their age were more likely to report both overuse and acute injuries. (4) More hours played can increase repetitive stress on the body and lead to microtrauma. This is not only true for athletes but for anyone who performs a higher than optimal volume of movement. Growing athletes are even more vulnerable to injury because of certain areas of the body that are weak and not fully developed (i.e. the sites where tendons and ligaments attach to the bones, and bone growth plates). This is why variability of movement by playing different sports, along with adequate rest, is extremely important in youth athletes.

    Early Sport Specialization Kids Sports Baseball Soccer Youth Athletes

    The Benefits of Being a Well-Rounded Athlete

    Multiple physician associations across the country agree that there are both physical and psychosocial risks to early sport specialization. (5) Despite this information, why is approximately 1 of every 2 parents encouraging their children to specialize in a single sport? (6) Are they hoping their athlete will get a scholarship and play at the collegiate level? Based on data reported by the NCAA during the 2013-2014 academic year, of the 7 million high school student-athletes across all sports in America, only 6% went on to participate in NCAA athletics (Division I, II, or III). (7) Do we mention this to discourage someone from playing sport(s)? Of course not; physical activity is beneficial to overall health and both team and individual sports can teach us great skills that last a lifetime. We’re presenting the data so that expectations are consistent with reality. It is becoming more common for college recruits to seek out talented and well-rounded athletes versus an elite soccer/basketball.etc. player. So, with the chances of competing at the next level being less than favorable and the increased potential of causing physical, mental and emotional harm to our youth athletes’ bodies through early sport specialization, is it really worth it? What if there were substantially more long-term benefits to playing multiple sports, including playing at the college level.

    Contrary to popular belief, a 2016 study found that the majority of NCAA Division I athletes did not specialize in high school. (8) Another study concluded that players participating in other physical activities beyond their primary sport decreased their risk of injury by 61%. (9) Multi-sport athletes were also 2.5 times more likely to have good control, defined by jumping mechanics and agility tests, compared to single-sport athletes. (10) Kids that play multiple sports are also more likely to continue playing sports through their adolescence due to the decreased likelihood of suffering from burnout.

    Young Athletes Kids Sports Training Focus

    Play Longer and Stronger

    Of course, physical activity is beneficial for overall health throughout the lifespan. What can you do to minimize the physical and/or psychosocial risks of sports specialization? Try these tips to keep our youth happy, healthy and playing the sports they love for longer:

      • Let kids be kids! Focus on playing for fun, not always to win. Maybe this is playing catch in the backyard or playing a friendly game of HORSE on the playground. FUN FACT: Did you know that youth sports organizations in Norway do not keep score until the athletes are 13 years old? (11) Can you imagine how that would shift the culture of youth sports in America?
      • Participate in more than one sport/activity throughout the year.
      • Play your primary sport <8 months out of the year to reduce the risk of injury.
      • Play no more hours per week of one sport than your age (ex: 12-year-olds should play <12 hours of one sport per week. And yes, this means games and practice).
      • Have an off-season! Professional athletes don’t compete year-round, so why should our youth?
      • During the off-season, train to play. Spend the off-season doing sport-specific training that will better prepare your body for the demands of the game, such as strength training and plyometrics.

    Health Benefits of Squatting

    squat physical therapy

    There are few exercises that exist that are more beneficial than the squat. Contrary to popular belief, when properly coached and progressed, squats are an excellent training tool for improving leg and hip strength, load tolerance in the knee, and core strength. While it is true that squats produce compressive loads within the knee joint and tensile loads of the ligaments and tendons of the knee, current research has shown that those loads are still below the maximum tolerable loads of those connective tissues. In fact, evidence also points to a higher levels of tensile strength and cross-sectional area (CSA) of the quad, patellar, and achilles tendons in athletes who have participated in weightlifting vs non-weightlifting sports. Strengthening exercises for the quads that allow for progressive loading, such as squats, can in fact reduce the long-term risk of injury.

    Squats Can Actually Help Your Spine

    When looking at the impact of squatting on the lumbar spine researchers have found no adverse effects on disc height in the long-term. In other words, the idea that barbel squats cause degeneration in the lumbar spine is based more on fear than science. In fact, the increase in demand on core musculature would indicate that loaded squatting improves the stability of the spine rather than the opposite.

    As mentioned earlier, learning to squat can provide a whole host of benefits that outweigh the risks. Those benefits include:
    1. Increased overall leg strength for daily activities.
    2. Increased core strength for spine health.
    3. Increased hip and ankle mobility with progressive loading.
    4. Increased metabolic rate due to the increased muscle growth.
    5. Improved movement patterns to minimize injury risk with other sports and activities.

    If you are experiencing pain with squatting, consider meeting with a physical therapist to assess what the possible causes might be. Not everyone needs to squat the same and a good therapist will help identify what your limitations are and how to properly progress your program to continue to reap the benefits of squatting without increasing pain.