Sport Specialization: Should My Child Focus on a Single Sport?
August 7, 2020
Nancy Littke, PT
As parents, one of our main goals is to help our children become happy, healthy well-rounded adults. Encouraging an active lifestyle is one of the keys to succeeding in this goal. Involvement in formal sport, informal sport, and play-based programs provides opportunities to develop a child’s general fitness and independence. Important attributes and skills such as strength, endurance, balance, throwing, running, and jumping are also developed through play and sport. Early and ongoing participation in sport and activity programs provide the building blocks for active children to become and remain active as adults.
Beyond the physical benefits, sport also provides children with opportunities to develop skills such as teamwork and leadership, improve social relationships and build the positive self-esteem and self-image associated with better mental health.1,3
Parents with children in formal sport programs are often faced with the decision “should my child focus on one sport year-round or play multiple sports?”
American data (2016) suggests that nearly 72% of school age youth participate in at least one organized sport.3 The same evidence shows that 30% of youth are involved in highly specialized sport activities (sports specialization). However, the chances of making it to the big leagues are slim - only 0.2 to 0.5% of US high school athletes ever make it to professional sport.3
What is sport specialization?
Sports specialization is defined as:
Year-round training (greater than eight months per year)
Choosing a single main sport
Quitting all other sports to focus on one sport2
Individual sports such as competitive swimming, figure skating, gymnastics and tennis, and team sports like soccer, baseball and hockey are sports where specialization at an early age is becoming more common. Historically, children played different sports during the various seasons of the year as the facilities and weather dictated what was available. With the increased access to year-round training, competition schedules, and sport-specific summer or winter camps, there is added opportunity and pressure to put children into a single sport at an early age.2
The pressure to participate in a single sport may come from parents who want their child to excel at a sport and go on to more competitive leagues, receive post-secondary scholarships or be recruited to high-level teams. Coaches may see a player who seems to have the skills to compete at a higher level and encourage specialization.
A child may also have a passion for a specific sport or sports team and want to be just like their favorite athlete. In some sports, such as gymnastics or figure skating, athletes tend to peak prior to physical maturity, and this may lead to early specialization of those who want to be highly competitive.
Although intense focus on a single sport may improve sport-specific skills in the short-term, current evidence suggests that sport specialization at a young age may put the child athlete at greater risk for early burnout, chronic injury, or a loss of passion and love for sport. This may eventually lead the child to leave sports altogether, potentially resulting in an inactive lifestyle as an adult.1,2,3
The evidence suggests that early involvement in multiple sports leads to a more physically, socially, and mentally well-rounded athlete with better tools to excel at a single sport later1,2,3,4,5 (and helps to keep them active and engaged).
What are the concerns?
Although there may be pressure to specialize early, the main concerns with early sport specialization are:
Reduced general motor skill development. Focused training in one sport may develop the specific skills and muscle strength required for that sport but not a balanced and varied set of functional skills, such as hand/eye coordination, core muscle strength, agility, good posture, overall fitness, balance, and endurance.3 Reduced overall general sport skill development may reduce the opportunity for a child to achieve high levels of sport performance in the future.3
Increased risk of injury. An athlete who is highly specialized at a young age and has not had the opportunity to develop these general physical skills may face increased risks of acute or chronic injuries.3 Once a young athlete starts to specialize in a single sport, the opportunities for unstructured play decrease and the volume of focused time in training and competition increases. Year-round competition or training programs do not allow for time to rest and recover. Lack of general strength and conditioning to address specific individual deficits can lead to repetitive or chronic injury. For example, studies of young baseball pitchers (9-14 years old) found that those who pitched more than 100 innings per year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured and, if pitching more than eight months per year, had a significantly increased risk of shoulder or elbow surgery.5
Increased risk of burnout. Evidence suggests that youth who are focused on a single, intense sport often leave the sport early.1,2,3
Some reasons that young athletes leave sport early are1,2,3,4,5
Social isolation – the child or teen does not have enough time to socialize with peers who are not involved in the sport team. They feel left out of fun social activities.
Psychological burnout related to pressure to perform at their best and to win all the time. This can lead to depression and negative attitudes toward sport if the child does not perform at expected levels and feel they have let their parent, team, or coach down.
The fun going out of the game. If a child is forced to go to practice early in the morning, must miss a friend’s birthday party because of a tournament, or sits on the bench all the time they may not see sport as a fun activity anymore.
Fear of injury or reinjury. Once a child has been injured, or has seen a teammate injured, they may be afraid that it will happen again and that may affect their desire or motivation to continue.
My six year old is only interested in dance/hockey/soccer. Should I be concerned?
Allowing and even encouraging your 6-9 year old to play a sport they like is perfectly fine. However, it is also important to encourage and provide opportunities to try different sports during the off-season. Having younger children play hockey in the winter, soccer or baseball in the spring, and take part in swimming lessons in the summer gives them the opportunity to play the sport they want, but also experience other sports, meet new friends, and develop new skills. The Caring For Kids handout provides parents with a table outlining both the skills children have normally developed by a certain age and the sports that may be appropriate based on those skills.
The Sport for Life Society in Canada has developed a pathway to describe the journey to lifelong sport/activity participation. It can be found in the Long-term development in sport and physical activity guide. This guide outlines paths to both the Olympic podium and to being fit and active for life, and recommends that both journeys start with a similar, multi-sport approach to ensure children develop the skills necessary to be successful at any level.4
What can I do to guide my child?
You must be aware of an activity before you can take part in it. When looking for activity programs for young children or adolescents, do your research and find local, community programs that fit your child’s specific development level, unique abilities, and preferences.
It is important to look for introductory programs that are well-organized and planned, inclusive and have appropriate facilities and leaders. A positive experience will encourage further participation and a willingness to try new things – a negative first experience may do the opposite.
Give preschool children an active start by encouraging fun physical activity and making it a part of their daily routine. This is the time to develop basic movement skills through structured and unstructured play in a variety of environments throughout the year. Community programs, web-based children’s activity/yoga/exercise programs, or just getting out and kicking a ball around or riding bikes are perfect opportunities to introduce activity in a young child’s life. The goal is to meet the Canadian Activity guidelines of 180 minutes of physical activity a day and having fun doing it.7
Activity and sport-based programs for early elementary aged children should focus on developing the FUNdamentals or the ABC’S for movement – Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed.4 Introducing simple rules and etiquette with a focus on fair play and respect is equally important at this stage. Involvement in some non-competitive team sports programs or individual sport group lessons is appropriate at this age.
As your child becomes a little older and more interested in focusing on a single sport it is important to continue to build skills by encouraging off season involvement in other sports or activities. Structured programs that include more formal training, warm-up, cool-down, drill training, fair-play focused competitions and participation in multiple team positions are important at this level.
If your child shows a desire to focus on a single sport it is important that you, as a parent, are involved in the process. Ensure this is what your child wants and not related to peer-pressure, coach pressure, or something you wanted as a child but could not or did not achieve.
Look for sport programs that are developmentally appropriate, participant centered, well planned, and inclusive. These programs should include:
Meaningful competition appropriate for the skill level and age group.
A balance between conditioning and strengthening, sport specific skill training, competition, and rest/off-season periods
Avoid year-round competitive seasons in different leagues or with different teams in a single sport.
Ensure your child has a period of time off to allow physical and mental recovery time and the opportunity to socialize with different groups of peers.1,2,3,4,
A focus on fun, fair play, and respect for others.
Remain involved. Whether your involvement is as coach, team manager, official, or simply as an enthusiastic team supporter, it is important that you monitor your child’s participation and continued enjoyment of the sport. Look for signs of stress, burnout, or repetitive and/or chronic injury as indicators that your child is no longer having fun or is being challenged beyond their mental, physical, or social maturity.1,2,3,4
Whether your child goes on to become an Olympic athlete or simply an active, healthy adult, the importance of sport and enthusiasm for an active lifestyle is undeniable. As parents, our job is to be aware of the risks and benefits of sport specialization, when and how to facilitate safe sport specialization and the realization that not all children will become Olympic athletes or NHL players and that this is OK. Promoting and modeling a healthy, active lifestyle should be our focus and providing the support our children need is our main responsibility.
Jacqueline Pasulka, Neeru Jayanthi, Ashley McCann, Lara R. Dugas & Cynthia LaBella (2017) Specialization patterns across various youth sports and relationship to injury risk, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 45:3, 344-352, DOI: 10.1080/00913847.2017.1313077
Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, et al. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health. 2015;7(5):437-442. doi:10.1177/1941738115598747
Myer GD, Jayanthi N, DiFiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes. Sports Health. 2016 Jan-Feb;8(1):65-73. doi: 10.1177/1941738115614811. Epub 2015 Oct 30. PMID: 26517937; PMCID: PMC4702158.