Sports Specialization in Youth Sports 

February 1st, 2021

Sports specialization has become more and more common in youth sports. It’s defined as year-round training and dedication to a single sport, at the expense of excluding other activities. This increase in sports specialization is secondary to the misconception that focusing on one sport at an early age will increase the likelihood of becoming an elite athlete at the collegiate, or possibly, professional level. Young kids and adolescents are participating in single sports for a longer period of time, usually via travel and club teams, and studies have shown that this may predispose them to overuse injuries.  

Frequently, physicians treat young kids and adolescents who belong to travel teams, and present with shoulder pain from repetitive throwing, or knee pain from repetitive running. It’s not uncommon for a young pitcher to present with shoulder and elbow pain, or a soccer player who presents with anterior knee pain. The solution is often to rest. The culprit for most of these symptoms is overuse. Interestingly, many parents are aware of this and often agree with this notion, and often times resting the athlete leads to resolution of pain. 

So what are some recommendations for youth sport participation to minimize overuse injuries? Following these simple rules will allow the young athlete to recover, both physically and mentally, and promotes health and well-being by minimizing overuse injuries and burnout.   

Delay sports specialization. 
Children under the age of 12 should take part in sports diversification by participating in various sports as opposed to one specific sport. Athletes should participate or sample a variety of sports for as long as possible. While some athletes train for a single sport year-round, evidence has shown us that this is counterproductive for performance while also increasing their risk for injury. They should participate in one organized sport per season to mitigate risk.

Use your child’s age as a guide. 
The total hours of organized sports per week should be less than your child’s age or no more than 16 hours per week. For example, a 12-year old should participate in approximately 12 hours of organized sport per week. 

Allow time for recovery.
Avoid competing on multiple sports teams that would involve more than 5 days/week of participation Adolescents and young athletes should have a minimum of two days off per week from training and competition. During these days off, the athlete should refrain from participation in organized training and/or competition.

Young athletes should spend time away from his or her sport at the end of each season but remain physically active all year long. In general, it’s recommended that youth athletes do not play the same organized sport more than 8 months in a calendar year.

Youth athletes continue to remain dedicated to their sports, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Now while this may seem like a good thing, it is important that we are cognizant of the trends we see with youth sports specialization. The pandemic has caused unique challenges in all aspects of society, and while we’re still making the necessary changes to return to sport safely, the guidelines above are still important to consider while competing.

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