New Research Notches Another Strike Against Early Sport Specialization

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The debate over whether young athletes should play multiple sports or focus on one to develop their skills – often framed around the best way to earn a college scholarship – has been going on for quite a while now.

Up until a few years ago it wasn’t much of a debate. Nearly all kids played multiple sports, and each sport had a season. These days, with nearly all club/travel sports becoming year-round commitments, it gets tougher and tougher to be a multi-sport athlete.

Some new research published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS), a scientific, peer-reviewed publication, weighs in on the topic. Since reading the actual article would require you to purchase it, here’s a press release that provides a pretty good summary.

The article defines early sports specialization (ESS) as “the intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (under the age of 12) for more than eight months per year, with a focus on a single sport to the exclusion of other sport and free play.” Does that sound like anyone you know?

The article goes on to point out that the “lack of diversified activity in youth leads to increased risk of injury and burnout.” No surprise there. Young bodies are still developing, and the constant repetition and wear-and-tear in the same ways can certainly take a toll.

As I like to explain, any sort of repetitive motion, done enough, can cause issues. Just look at carpal tunnel syndrome.

Clicking a mouse is hardly intense activity, yet 3-6% of adults in the U.S. acquire it at some point, often leading to surgery that costs thousands of dollars. Now imagine a much more robust series of activities repeated over and over on a body that hasn’t fully developed.

But what about the pursuit of excellence (and more specifically college scholarship opportunities)? The authors of the study state that ESS “may not be necessary for elite athletic achievement, but rather early diversification of sports leads to superior results.” They also say those who diversify show more enjoyment of sports in general, have a lower frequency of dropout, and have “fewer signs of chronic stress, higher levels of motivation and a gradual independence.”

I know I’ve seen the value of diversification in the athletes I’ve worked with over the years. For example, I love working with gymnasts, tumblers and cheerleaders. They have tremendous strength, especially in their core, as well as excellent body awareness that enables them to learn new athletic skills quickly. Skaters also tend to fall into this category.

Basketball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse players are usually in great shape and very quick. No need to do a lot of conditioning or speed and agility work with them – someone else is already doing that heavy lifting for you. They tend to make excellent middle infielders and pitchers.

Those are just a few examples of how the skills and athleticism gained in other sports translate to fastpitch softball. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Of course, at some point athletes do have to start specializing to some degree if they’re going to pursue higher level play. By the time they reach high school age the time demands for club/travel players make maintaining a competitive level in one sport tough, much less two or three. Although it can still be done if the adults are adults about it and willing to accept that a multi-sport athlete may not make it to every practice and team activity.

By that age, players may also self-select out of multiple sports. They may recognize that they’re better at one than another and decided to focus on it, or may lose interest in some sports they liked in the past. Of course, a few will want to continue playing more than one, at which point they will likely have to choose which to do at a high level and which to do at more of a recreational level.

At the younger ages, however, participating in different sports should not only be allowed but encouraged. Parents and coaches should work together to build a schedule that’s best for the young athlete as well as the team – including total time off from everything now and then so the kid can be a kid.

Coaches can also take heart from the fact that many of the basic skills from other sports will transfer to softball, helping players become better than they would have been otherwise.

Now, if your child isn’t interested in other sports it doesn’t make sense to force him or her into them just for the sake of cross-training. But most kids aren’t that narrowly focused.

As a society we need to dial back our obsession with youth sports (and college scholarships for 10 year olds) and instead focus on helping our kids establish a solid foundation and love for athletics that will carry them through their lives. The evidence increasingly shows it’s best for them in both the short and long terms.