By Dr. Chad LaChance PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
A growing trend in America is young athletes specializing in a single sport with the hopes of excelling in that sport and with goals of achieving a Division 1 athletic scholarship or even reaching the professional ranks. Although there is a degree of sports specialization and intense training needed to reach an elite level, it is important to understand the risks of specializing in a single sport at too young of an age. These risks include burn out, psychological stress, and musculoskeletal overuse injuries in pre-adolescent athletes.
Sports specialization is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.1 There is much debate on what exactly “intense” training is. In a 2008 study of 2721 high school athletes, increased exposure was the most important risk factor for injury. Their results concluded that >16 hours per week of exposure to intense training resulted in spike in athletic injuries in young athletes. 2 Reviews of studies of elite athlete specialization history revealed that, for most sports, late specialization with early diversification is most likely to lead to elite status. In addition, athletes who engaged in sport-specific training at a young age had shorter athletic careers.3
Examples of Injuries seen in young, specialized athletes:
- Muscle strains/tears
- Bone stress fractures/reactions
- Tendonitis and tendinopathy
- Traction apophysitis- irritation of growth plate where tendon attaches to bone (ie Osgood Schlatter, Sever’s disease)
- Osteochondrosis and cartilage defects
Is it ever safe to specialize in a single sport? If so, what age?
Current evidence suggests that delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence, ∼15 or 16 years of age) will minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success.3 One rule of thumb is that the number of hours/week of intense training should not exceed their age (i.e. 9 year-old should not exceed 9 hours/week)
Other tips to avoid over-training and injury
- Allow for rest days: young bodies need recovery too! 1-2 rest days per week are recommended.
- Communicate discomfort: Talk to your kids about communicating discomfort that may arise.
- Cross-train and diversify sports participation: Encourage young athletes to participate in multiple sports that develop different skills and that do not stress the body or body areas in the same ways.
- Consult with a physical therapist: For any injuries that arise or for further tips to avoid overuse injuries, talk to a PT! They can manage injuries and allow for a safe and timely return to sport. They can also assist in minimizing the risk of injury through corrective exercises and strength/flexibility training.
- Jayanthi NA, Pinkham C, Durazo-Arivu R, Dugas L, Luke A. The risks of sports specialization and rapid growth in young athletes. Clin J Sports Med. 2011;21(2):157 [Google Scholar]
- Rose MS, Emery CA, Meeuwisse WH. Sociodemographic predictors of sport injury in adolescents. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(3):444-450 [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- DiSanti, J.S. and Erickson, K., 2019. Youth sport specialization: a multidisciplinary scoping systematic review. Journal of sports sciences, 37(18), pp.2094-2105.