Sport Specialization for Young Athletes: Part 1

[wpfblike] Sport Specialization for Young Athletes


By Toby Brooks, PhD, ATC, CSCS, PES, YFS-3




In the United States, the model of Sport Specialization for Young Athletes has grown from an obscure practice employed by relatively few parents and coaches seeking to give their children and/or athletes every possible advantage over the competition to a now widely accepted and seemingly necessary step toward a promising amateur and potentially professional career in competitive sport. While there is no doubt that early and frequent exposures to physical activity during the formative years is associated with a number of positive health benefits, the real question is whether or not the practice of early sport specialization can lead to athletic success, and secondarily injury resistance, later in life. Unfortunately for most overzealous coaches and parents, current research would seem to indicate that the answer is a convincing “no” on both counts.


Unfortunately, such information flies in the face of current sports participation trends in most communities. “Elite” teams and “travel squads” have been developed for athletes across many sports, some even forming for athletes at the age of five or six years old.

Despite the research on Sport Specialization for Young Athletes, many would argue that their young child has noted dramatic improvements as a result of these earlier sport exposures.

So who’s right?


The International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA), established in 2003 to provide much needed reform to the growing subspecialty of youth fitness and athletic development training, consistently points to one factor exclusive to the youth market. Unlike their adult counterparts, children are growing and their development is always in some state of flux. Simply put, nearly all training stimuli can be effective. The real question is which approach is optimal.


Recent findings provide ample evidence to the fact that early specialization can be linked to chronic injury, burnout, and early withdrawal from sport participation. Chronic overuse injuries account for approximately 50% of new injuries in pediatric sports medicine practices. In particular, the developing skeletal system is especially at risk, with bone and growth plate injuries previously not observed in young athletes being seen with alarming and increasing frequency. These findings and other similar studies have led the American Academy of Pediatrics to suggest that athletes under the age of 12-13 avoid specialization altogether, opting instead for a broader based and sometimes less intense plan for physical activity.


… Part 2 coming tomorrow.



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– Brian






10 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Some sports generally require early specialization (gymnastics, swimming, tennis, golf, etc.) due to the technical requirement of the sport and the long period of time required to get to a competitive elite level. Some sports transfer the skills developed in earlier years, very well into other sports (ball sports are a prime example).
    I believe the majority of over-use injuries would come from sports that has a position with high joint usage such as a pitcher in baseball, quarterback in grid iron & tennis player to name a few.
    I’m Australian and I know of many elite Rugby League players who played many sports as a child (soccer, AFL, cricket, etc.) and then focussed on League at about age 13 and ended up playing professionally. Alot of these elite players aren’t there because of early specialisation but more because of their natural athletic ability and more importantly their hard work ethic and desire for perfection.
    To be honest, I don’t think it matters if a child specialises or not but players who have a more rounded youth full of many sports usually end up better skilled and also a longer life span (in sport). Just my thoughts… 🙂

  2. Brendan Murray says:

    Irish Coach makes startling discovery after new findings in Motivation Psychology.

    Source: Scientific Study based on Observation of Parents addicted to the disease of Medal Winning over 35 years.
    -Brendan Murray 2011

    As a result changes are happening in Primary School Education.

    Ok, Children, pay attention there is a prize for the best answer.
    “What is the best way for us to get fit and healthy and win the Olympics”
    Is it running the Marathon?
    That comes when you are older.
    Is is joining at Athletic Club and doing 200 metre Interval Training.
    That comes when you are older.
    Has anyone a better answer?
    I do, Miss,
    1. Play lots of sports for fun, and make friends, and take exercise every day.
    2. Eat healthy food, especially a good breakfast
    3. Get plenty of sleep

    Wow, good answer! Well done!
    Did you hear that, class, that was not just good, it was fantabulous.
    Skip up to the top of the class, and take an apple from the basket.
    It is not your prize for being an ‘A’ student.
    It is 1.exercise and 2. healthy food 3. but don’t go to sleep yet.

  3. Dr. Kwame M. Brown says:


    This argument that early specialization is ok in certain sports because “this is the only way the kids can reach an elite level” is not only hogwash, but is a direct result of this having been the way that it is routinely done. This argument is circular, and a bit maddening to me. This approach is a result of a tacit agreement among adults, without regard for the whole child. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal – neither one specialized until the age of 12 – they both played soccer competitively until then. They also have the best footwork in tennis. But I agree with the way you ended your comments.

    No matter which way you slice this argument: If we are coming at it prioritizing of the needs of the child – it is unequivocally wrong.

    If we are trying to balance the equation with the needs of adults to maintain federations and cash flow – then I can see the point in it.

  4. s.w says:

    Parent’s choices affect children’s progress in sport.

    I’ve been coaching as a trainer in Singapore for more than 20 years now. What is worrisome sometimes, isn’t largely the child’s need for specialisation.

    Most times it is due to the technical coaches (ie, tennis, soccer, swimming, you name it) lack of awareness or parental need for excellence or perfection. The child’s choice mostly then take second place and his/her diminished progress is easily dismissed as to not trying hard enough or being too flippant in choices and being ill disciplined or not pleasing the parents enough.

    Either way, there’d be significant improvement in children’s sporting development excellence (country dependent of course) preferably when there’s a (tripartite + 1) consensus between parent, technical coach, strength coach and the thoughts of the child taken into consideration.

  5. Anderson says:

    Really enjoy the modern appear. I loved the information. Credit for a perfect posting.

  6. Mark Miller says:

    I promise you as a golf professional that LTAD is the future of junior golf. Even Tiger worked for 17 years to reach a truly elite level and contrary to popular belief he was an amazing athlete in a variety of sports long before he won his first professional event. Golf is now being hit hard by repetitive use injuries that I believe early specialization plays a big part in.

  7. Angus says:

    Case in point:

    Chris Hoy – 3 Golds in track cycling at Beijing (ind sprint, team sprint, keirin)

    rowed for Scotland in GB junior championships, played rugby at high school

    Track sprinting is about as specific as you get – but rowing & rugby are endurance sports (his biog has an amusing story about struggling to get up Alp d’Huez on the Etap du Tour)

  8. Brendan Murray says:


    I stated humorously on a previous Quote that I had done a Scientific Study.

    This is NOT accurate in the true meaning of the Term, but I am gathering Evidence for my Thesis.

    I am a High Achiever.

    I am confident of a High Grade in my Results.

  9. George says:

    For Kwame, how about gymnastics and figure skating. Seeing how it is dominated by young athletes. Your Thoughts???? I have no opinion, would love to hear what you have to say . thanks, GM

  10. […] Sport Specialization for Young Athletes: Part 1 & Part 2 – As I’ve said plenty of times…it sucks. Don’t do it. […]

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