Is Sport Specialization Making Youth Less Athletic?




A new study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, which

included over 1,500 high school athletes, found that athletes who specialized in one sport were

twice as likely to report a leg injury as compared to those who played multiple sports.

Youth sports programs help in the development self-esteem, peer socialization, work ethic, and

general levels of fitness. They also allow children to sample a variety of sports and potentially

discover a passion for some of them. Through experimentation, young people can even identify

sports for which they show particular promise. There was a time, though, when a sporting

season lasted 4 months with time gaps between successive seasons. Such breaks allowed for

shifts in attention to other activities. Over the last decade, however, youth sports have

morphed into highly competitive leagues with year-round dedication and specialization.


If Some is Good, More Must Be Better, Right?

Unfortunately this mantra is a first instinct for a lot of parents and even coaches. At first

glance, it seems to make sense, right? If you want to get better, then you have to practice all

the time and play the game frequently. This way of thinking seems sensible until you take a

second look and realize how damaging an idea it can actually be.

I think everyone would agree that playing a sport at a high level can put immense strain on the

human body. As parents and coaches, we can forget this reality because young people are

often very resilient to injury, and recover from physical setbacks quickly. There are limits to this

resiliency, however, and nagging overuse injuries can start to force young people out of

competition and practice. We forget the impact of growth spurts, and bone and body structure

development, and that young people are still developing strength and coordination. Repetitive

strain injuries are an important reality to acknowledge in youth sports: Just as we rotate the

tires on our cars, we have to encourage our children to change wear patterns as they train to

increase their likelihood of staying healthy.

This is why specialization should be avoided, or pushed as late in physical development as

possible. In most scenarios specialization shouldn’t occur until college, or at the very earliest

junior and senior years of high school. Of course, not all sports are created equal in this

regard. For example gymnasts typically peak at a very young age, whereas most field and

court sports see athletes reach peak performance much later, generally in mid to late 20’s

(sometimes later).


How Can Playing Multiple Sports Increase a Kid’s Athleticism?

A study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that physical fitness and gross motor

movements were improved in boys aged 6-12 when they played multiple sports versus just


Similarly, according to a study in The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, 88% of

college athletes participated in more than one when they were children. Playing multiple sports

exposes young athletes to different kinds of skills, movement patterns, coordination, and

dynamic power development. In fact, it has been found that children who play multiple sports

develop larger bases of athletic skills from which they can draw in later development. This

means that they acquire the ability to pick up and learn skills, techniques, and tricks much

faster than their counterparts who play only a single sport.


Benefits of a Well Designed Training Program to Keep Kids in Sports

Ideally, training programs for young people should include diverse activities where foundation

movements are complimentary. In this way, any movements that are missed in one sport are

accounted for by the introduction of another sport where those movements are included. The

goal of a training program at a young age should really focus on filling in the gaps of

foundation movement and basic levels of strength that your sport or sports may miss.

Enjoying sports that take place in different seasons will help accomplish aims like these. For

example, hockey and swimming include different fundamental movements, and will allow a

young athlete to diversify training patterns. Also, it is impossible to understate the importance

of proper instruction. For example, when a training program is implemented correctly it will first

address poor movement patterns and the ability to absorb force to make the body more

adaptable to stress. This kind of training will also start to build foundation levels of strength,

and make young bodies more resilient and resistant to overuse injuries. When these

foundations are established, higher athletic development potential begins to develop, and an

environment is established for athletes to succeed when they eventually decide to specialize in

particular sports later in their athletic careers.


“Prepare young athletes for their sporting future, not just the next competition.” —