Sport Specialization: Information & Recommendations

Apr2nd 2021

By Dr Tyler Fallon, PT, DPT, CSCS

Some time ago participation in sports was driven by comradery, enjoyment, and a need to pass time while staying active and out of trouble.  Athletics have evolved massively, both in a physical and mental way, with strength programs and practices for athletes being highly structured, focused, and intense. Without question, this shift has led to bigger, stronger, more skilled athletes as competition to participate at the highest levels have soared. People have long studied the idea of what makes a better athlete and while physical stature, attributes, and genetics play a large role, time on task potentially plays an even greater responsibility. Simply put, the more hours spent on a specific sport, the more likely that child or athlete is to become elite. 

People who define sport specialization agree that these athletes start at a younger age (<18), dedicate full athletic commitment to the sport, and increase their level of participation. Some athletes perform multiple sports at a high level year round, and are not included in this group of athletes. Sport specialization gradually increases each year as adolescents age and differs from sport to sport. For example, tennis, figure skating, and ballet dancers have higher rates of sport specialization than soccer or lacrosse for example and begin at younger ages.  

These bigger questions remain: Is it worth it to specialize in sport? And What is the price to pay?

Generally, the more an athlete practices and hours spent performing a certain skill, the better he or she will be at the skill, and this applies to both team and individual sports. That being said, diversifying an athlete’s sports, especially at a young age could potentially provide the athlete with valuable physical and cognitive attributes about which sport will apply once the athlete specializes. While not proven, exposing an athlete to many sports early in adolescence, followed by specializing around fifteen or sixteen years of age, may lead to better social attributes within the athlete, more enjoyment, less risk of burn-out from the sport, higher skill or performance level, and potentially fewer injuries.

Burnout and psychological stress of high demand of performance and success contribute to children dropping out of sports. Years and usually thousands of dollars spent on transportation, team fees, equipment, and training can all be wasted if the child has had enough. When a child specializes before adolescence, and with improper off-season or rest time, the risk for burnout is likely higher.

Risk of injury always exists for all athletes. Unfortunately, with sport specialization, higher rates of injury are typically found and this may be related to many reasons. Some risk factors that may lead to repetitive use injuries include higher competition level, higher demand of intense practice time, reduced off-season time or insufficient rest, and so forth. A way to combat these risk factors is to develop a strength and conditioning program in the offseason, and perform a maintenance program during a season, utilizing research to predict common repetitive use injuries and look biomechanically at the athlete in order to stabilize areas and add mobility to others. 

There is no special formula to ensure a child’s success in sport as every child is different. A strength and conditioning program however can help athletes in many ways, including improving performance and reducing the risk for injury. A physical therapist, with a background in strength and conditioning, can combine the knowledge of common repetitive use injuries and pathology to an athlete in order to create a preventative program that will promote the athlete’s success both physically and mentally. So if specializing with a sport is in the cards for your athlete, be sure to have them take good care of their bodies both physically and mentally.