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When is it too early for sport specialization?

Information provided on the blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or offer treatment plans.

Before 12 years old. Maybe.

A recent article in The American Journal of Sports Medicine tackles (pun intended) an often-asked question in recent years: when is it too early for sport specialization?

What does single-sport specialization mean exactly?

The article is not saying that it’s potentially bad for an adolescent athlete to play baseball during the season and then not play another sport until the following baseball season.

It is, however, saying that it’s potentially harmful for an adolescent athlete to play baseball during the season in school, and then play club baseball, and then do specialized training for baseball during the offseason. Sports specialization refers to focusing your training, and athletic movements around one sport, which can have detrimental effects such as skeletal-structure change and overuse injuries.

Why do parents, coaches, and athletes pursue sport specialization?

The most obvious reason is that people believe specialization offers a competitive edge. Other reasons to specialize in a sport include pursuing college scholarships and hoping to compete at the professional level.

Whatever the reasons, they seem like good things, but the study’s authors argue that the perceived benefits–some of which they question the veracity–do not outweigh the potentially harmful consequences.

The study authors looked at small-scale studies of Olympians, elite Russian swimmers, professional tennis players, among other elite and professional athletes, and they consistently found that elite athletes specialized after 11 or 12 years old, yet still cross trained and at times played other sports in the off season.

“Swimmers who specialized before 11 years of age spent less time on a national team and retired earlier than late specializers.

Elite [tennis] players began intense training and specialized later than near-elites (after 13 years vs. 11 years).

Elite athletes were more likely than near-elites to have played more than 1 sport in their developmental years.

Near elites have more hours of training at a young age than elite athletes.”

 

The study’s authors did acknowledge, however, that the scientific community lacks enough evidence for or against early specialization.

There are several reasons why we can’t come right out and say, “If you’re child is between 11-13, you want to be careful.” That’s the time when you’re tempted to ditch all other sports and focus in one place. It’s a tempting time to do that because kids are going through radical change physiologically. They get faster, stronger. Their reflexes are incredible. It’s a great time for them, and they want to pursue what they want to pursue, so there’s a natural draw towards specialization.

That aside, the medical community believes it has found strong associations within the data between specialization and injury, but these studies do not yet have large enough data sets to definitively make these claims.

The other issue is that if you look into any seventh grade class, there are small little kids and kids that are shaving. The problem is the variability in development. It’s not just a matter of age, which makes broad strokes conclusions quite challenging.

Two kids in the same grade, on the same team could have vastly different ability levels because one child has already hit puberty and the other has not.

And maybe overuse injuries could be avoided if young athletes had professional trainers, dieticians, and support networks who encouraged cross training.

Take a look at golfers today as opposed to twenty or thirty years ago. The professional golfers today are often quite fit. They’re not just golfing. Rather, they’re weight lifting and doing other activities that offer variety in the way they use and train their muscles. They don’t go out every single day and swing a golf club for eight hours and then go home.

Ultimately, we need to encourage our athletes to train smart, and that often means playing different sports (at least two) and participating in cross training that will develop complementary athletic skills.

 

The main concern for young athletes revolves around repetitive motions that can alter musculoskeletal tissue and can “distort the normal biomechanics, increasing the risk of overuse injuries.” Furthermore, overuse injuries can result in further injury later in life.

While the study did not conclusively state that no athlete under twelve years old should specialize, they did state that early specialization is a risk factor for injury. That’s quite different than saying that early specialization will result in injury.

The study suggested as well that research in the future “is needed to determine other injury patterns in youth athletes and their long-term consequences. It is also important to identify at which age range sport specialization is clearly detrimental and when sport specialization becomes beneficial to the elite athlete.”

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Scott Trenhaile, M.D.

Dr. Trenhaile is an orthopedic surgeon for Rockford Orthopedic, specializing in sports medicine. He's also an avid runner, a husband, and a father of four. Learn more about him here.


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