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.

    Preparing for Your Next 5K: Tips From a PT

    Fall is upon us and with holiday runs right around the corner, Therapydia physical therapist Jodie McGinlay, DPT, weighs in with her top five things to keep in mind as you prepare for this year’s Turkey Trot, Holiday Hustle, Fun Run or any of the numerous other festively-themed 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons:

    You did it! You made the important first step of signing up for that 5K/10K or maybe even half marathon. Great job! Prior to race day, there are a few things to consider to make the most out of your run, no matter if this is your first race or your tenth. One of the most important things to keep in mind to ensure your success is to go slow and listen to your body. No matter how many races you’ve run, there are many goals to set and accomplish during your pre-race, training period. Remember that injury prevention and maintenance at any phase of the training process is attainable so the fact that you’re reading this prior to your run is great! Here you will find the top five considerations to help you avoid injury and prepare your body to cruise across the finish line on race day.

    Running Shoes Physical Therapy 5k Runners Exercise

    1. Running Shoes

    Take a look at your shoes. Are they more than two years old? Do they squeeze your toes? Do your feet ever feel numb during or after you wear them? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to check in with your local physical therapist or running shoe store. Unfortunately, shoes are not bulletproof and they need replacing every so often, especially if they are uncomfortable. Your physical therapist can assess your foot mechanics for optimal comfort and recommend a specific brand or running shoe store to visit.

    Runner Exercises 5k Physical Therapy Injury Prevention

    2. The Course

    Consider the surface in which you’ll be running on race day. Is the upcoming race hilly? Is it flat? If the race is outside, try to hit the pavement and see how your body handles it. Various surfaces can actually distribute forces through your feet in different ways so you should try to change up the surfaces that you’re training on to prepare (because not all are created equal). Tracks, treadmills, concrete surfaces and trails can all put stresses on the body in their own way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should hop out on the trails if your 5K is on pavement, but it may be wise to switch up your training occasionally and skip a treadmill day in favor of some fresh air.

    Runner Exercises Injury Prevention 5k Physical Therapy

    3. Set Your Goals

    Are you shooting to complete a personal record or increase your speed for your upcoming race? Try to include some form of cross training to give your program variability. Current physical therapy research suggests 2-3 days a week of resistance training: weights, high intensity interval training, and even plyometrics can increase your run speed and lung capacity for endurance.

    If you haven’t been particularly active lately and you’re unsure about where to start, these three exercises are low impact and address specific musculature responsible for ensuring optimal gluteal activation while walking and running. Remember if any exercises create discomfort, please discontinue performing and consult a physical therapist for a formal musculoskeletal assessment.

    Exercise for Runners Clamshell Physical Therapy Portland

    Exercise 1: Sidelying Clamshell

    Lie on your side with the band above your knees. With the knees bent and stacked on each other, lift the top knee up and away—into the resistance band. Try to maintain the hips and shoulders from rocking back or forward. Hold for 5-10 seconds and perform 5 reps for 2-3 sets. You should be feeling this on the outer glut. If you feel it more on the side of your hip (think about where a seam in your pant would start), roll your top hip forward. Work your holds up to 20 seconds.

    Running Man Exercise for Runners Physical Therapy Portland

    Exercise 2: Running Man

    Stand and balance on one leg. Lean your body forward (keeping your upper body/core in plank position) while you straighten your back leg behind you. Try to hover back leg or tap toe on the ground for balance. Bring the same arm forward into ready position (see picture). March leg up to 90 degrees as you extend your arm back to end position. Perform 2-3 rounds of 5 reps. Work your reps up if you are able to maintain your balance in a smooth and controlled manner.

    Runner Exercise Lateral Band Walks Physical Therapy Portland

    Exercise 3: Lateral Band Walks

    Place elastic band around legs. From easiest to hardest: band above knees, band below knees, band at ankles, band at feet. Lightly bend your knees while you take a step to the side keeping your feet spread about hip distance apart. Keep resistance on band and bring trailing leg towards the other. Try to keep hip distance between feet in order to get the best burn. Remember this is four your hips—you should feel it on the outside glut but will feel quads as well. Try 10 steps down and back. Work up to 20 steps in coming weeks.

    Physical therapy 5k preparation injury prevention hydration

    4. Fuel the Tank

    Hydration + diet + adequate sleep can give your body energy and sustainability through your training period and beyond. Make sure to drink water throughout the day and eat plenty of nutrient rich and high carb energy boosters, including bananas, oats, whole-grain foods, peanut butter, broccoli, Greek yogurts and berries. The consistency with your training program to ensure your body is equipped to run the race from a cardiovascular standpoint can be accelerated by how you’re fueling the tank before and after.

    Runner Injury Prevention 5k 10k marathon physical therapy

    5. Recovery, REcovery, RECOVERY

    As you prepare and train for the upcoming race, allow your mind and body some time to cool down. A long week full of runs, resistance training, socializing, work, etc. can take its toll. This could mean taking a hot bath and letting your body relax while you work on incorporating some new recipes and getting a little extra sleep. Cooldowns after a run could mean walking the last ½ mile home instead of the sprint you planned on or simply taking the time to prop your feet up and elevate after moving around all day. However you choose to take it easy after the week, this rest is not only beneficial for your body but for your mental drive to get back out on that next run the following week. Self motivation can sometimes be challenging so I like to incorporate training with a friend or local run club. Consider looking into run clubs or meetups in your area that could make running more enjoyable.

    If you feel you need further assistance with training including ramping mileage and/or a customized running program, there are additional resources and education we can provide to ensure optimal performance during your training. Therapydia’s Run Assessment locates any weaknessess or mechnical challenges involved in your running. With a thorough exam of your strength, flexibility, movement patterns and running form, your run analysis will help to ensure your running is more efficient, more enjoyable and most importantly, injury and pain-free. You’ll review the findings with your physical therapist and leave with a custom assessment and exercise training plan. Click here to schedule your Run Assessment today.

    Happy running!