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Should Your Young Athlete Specialize in One Sport?

Peter Gray, MA, LAT, ATC

/ by Peter Gray, MA, LAT, ATC

Encouraging your kid to play sports starting at a young age is beneficial for their social, emotional and physical health. Participating in sports is a great way to boost self-esteem and lower stress, and exercise in general can help decrease the risk for obesity and high blood pressure.

Your young athlete may develop a passion for one sport in particular, and they may consider playing just that one sport. This is called sports specialization.

Sports specialization consists of year-round training (more than 8 months per year) of a single sport and often involves quitting all other sports to focus on that one pursuit.

If your child is considering sports specialization, it’s best to weigh the pros and cons and to consider whether it’s the best decision for your young athlete.

Benefits of sports specialization

Many coaches, parents and children believe that the best way to become an elite athlete is to participate in only one sport from an early age and to play it year-round.

You might want to go the route of sports specialization for any of these reasons:

  • Improving skills to an elite level.
  • Making all-star teams or travel teams.
  • Gaining exposure to recruiters.
  • Receiving a scholarship.

Risks of sports specialization

However, parents and coaches should be cautious about encouraging sports specialization to kids at a young age.

Some consequences of sports specialization include the following:

  • Risking serious overuse injury.
  • Burning out.
  • Decrease in performance due to over-training.
  • Limiting sports skill development.
  • Reducing motor skill development.

Parents should also be aware of coaches that push their athletes too hard, which is more likely when a young athlete is playing just one sport. Constant pressure or critical instruction from coaches can limit an athlete’s mental development and hamper their ability to feel confident on the field or court.

Coaches of youth sports should be vigilant of any signs of stress, burnout and other physical symptoms in these athletes. If they spot any of these red flags, they need to take corrective action, such as backing off training intensity and frequency.

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