Specializing in one sport may hurt your young athlete

Aug. 15, 2019

By Jessica Ennis, for UCHealth

Organized youth sports are becoming increasingly competitive and often very young athletes have begun to focus their energies on a single sport. Your young soccer star may have a true passion for the game, but there’s no guarantee she’ll end up the next Megan Rapinoe. And, she may be exposed to additional risks by specializing too early.

Dr. David Bubis, who practices at the UCHealth Primary Care – Lone Tree, sees many primary care sports medicine patients. He says he often has to explain to parents why it’s important to expose children to a wide variety of sports throughout their youth.

Young women jog in grass
Dr. David Bubis says that having your child specialize in only one sport may not be best for your child. Photo: Getty Images.

“One of the things parents ask me is how will their kid get a college scholarship if they’re not participating in or practicing one sport,” Dr. Bubis says. “I tell them that there’s a lot of different data to support that early sports specialization could be harmful and there’s no evidence that it’s beneficial in becoming an elite athlete.”

The biggest concern with early specialization is the greater risk for overuse injuries, especially if your athlete hasn’t gone through puberty, because their muscles and tendons are still developing.

Participating in multiple sports allows athletes to develop different neuromuscular patterns and increase their adaptive skills. Essentially by moving and falling differently when playing a variety of sports can be a preventative for injury in your chosen sport.

A photo of Dr. David Bubis, who says specializing in one sport may actually be harmful to a child
Dr. David Bubis

There’s also mounting evidence showing kids who specialize too early often drop out of sports all together either due to burnout or because they feel isolated from friends who don’t participate in their sport. According to the National Council of Youth Sports, 60 million kids 6-18 participate in some form of youth sports, with up to 70 percent discontinuing by age 13.

“There’s so much pressure in sports culture these days, which has changed from the neighborhood practices or pick-up games to more organized sports,” Dr. Bubis says. “Some youth leagues are starting with players as young as 7. Young kids should be focused on developing a lifelong love of sports, physical activity, and just having fun.”

Deliberate practice just doesn’t seem to transfer to becoming an elite athlete, especially before the age of 12. In fact, delaying specialization to late adolescence may help your athlete achieve their goals.

“We know you can reach elite status both ways – and there’s lots of examples of that – but we also know by early specialization can lead to reduced physical health, reduced enjoyment and shorter sports careers.”

Dr. Bubis offers the following tips to help your young athlete maintain a healthy balance and prevent sports injuries:

  • Be sure to limit the number of hours your child plays/practices each week to no greater than their age. Athletes who play more hours a week than their age, especially those under 16 years old, have a 30 percent increase in risk for injury, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Take one to two days off from sports each week and one month off sports at least three times a year. This allows for physical and psychological recovery.
  • Participating in a wide variety of sports – balls, racquets, swimming, biking –strengthens neurodevelopmental skills, helps develop leadership skills and improves self-esteem.

“Parents are the strongest influencers on if and when their child is going to start a sport, what type of sport, and how many sports they play. Coaches are the biggest influencers on training intensity and the decision to specialize,” Dr. Bubis says. “Parents should be armed with the knowledge about what could put their kids at risk and make sure they’re watching out for them.”

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