Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy

We often hear calls from sport administrators to get youngsters started in a sport early and exclusively because they think that the earlier a child begins practicing a single sport the better he will be later on. In sports lingo this is known as early sport specialization (ESS) and it means pretty much what it sounds like: pick a sport early and stick with it; early training leads to early success. This concept sounds like it should be true but researchers, experienced coaches, and sport medicine practitioners disagree. Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy for most sports.

Youngsters involved in ESS have higher rates of injury than other young athletes (as much as 50% higher). Most of these injuries result from overuse of muscles or joints. Using the same muscles repeatedly and following the same movement patterns can easily damage immature joints. Many of these injuries become chronic, thus permanently reducing the youngsters ability to participate in sport activities as they get older.

Young ESS athletes are also subject to earlier burnout. Burnout is a complex response to chronic stress. Young, single-sport athletes can become overwhelmed by the unrelenting pressure to practice and perform turning what once was an enjoyable activity into both a physical and psychological burden. What follows is a cascade of consequences that eventually lead to burnout. In studies of why young athletes drop out of sport, burnout is frequently highlighted as one reason for leaving by athletes who followed the early specialization pathway.

Research shows that ESS is not essential to sport success nor is there any advantage for those who specialized early over those who didn't. Sport success by late specialization athletes is quite common and more the rule rather than the exception. One reason late specialization athletes seem to be overrepresented on the rosters of national teams, Olympic medal winners, or professional leagues is that few ESS athletes make it to the elite level because they develop chronic injuries when young or experience burnout and leave the sport before anyone knows whether they could have reached the elite level or not.

Participating in several sports i.e. early sport diversification, can reduce or even eliminate these problems. Multi-sport activity increases the variety of movement patterns and practically eliminates chronic overuse injuries by strengthening all muscles, ligaments, and tendons surrounding joints. A variety of sport activities also helps keep physical activity fun and almost stress free, thus reducing the chance of burnout.

The consequences of a young athlete leaving sport due to injury or burnout is bad for the athlete and for the sport. No matter how you look at it there is no such thing as a high performance 10-year-old so training a youngster as if he were an adult is misguided. The real rewards for athletic ability don't come until later, if they ever do. The early years of a child's sport engagement should be spent playing, learning, and participating in a variety of activities. This early and diverse training will create robust athletes in whichever sport they finally decide to specialize.

Early diversification is a hard idea to sell to long-time sport administrators and coaches who believe the ESS pathway is the only way to go. But in the interest of the athletes and development of the sport, early diversification is clearly the best strategy.