Single-Sport Specialization or Multi-Sport Participation?
Maria A. Larson, PT, DPT
This question has been of particular interest for today’s pediatric health care professionals as more and more children have begun specializing in one sport at younger ages. Sports specialization occurs when an athlete focuses on only one sport, usually at the exclusion of any other sport or recreational activity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, research suggests that children who specialize in one sport from a young age face a higher risk of overuse injuries, physical and mental ‘burnout’, and stress.
Overuse injuries occur when repetitive stress is applied to a bone, muscle, ligament, or tendon without allowing for adequate time for the body to heal. These injuries often result in pain, swelling, and changes in form or technique. Research suggests that children who participated in organized sports for greater than twice the amount of time they participated in free play were at increased risk of an overuse injury. Physical and mental ‘burnout’ are also at increased occurrence in children who specialize in one sport from a young age. Pressure to perform and increased time demands can contribute to feelings of stress or anxiety for children, and may cause them to lose interest in physical activity all together.
In addition to the detriments of single-sport specialization, there are also numerous benefits to engaging in multiple sports or recreational activities from a young age. Mental growth and flexibility, diversity of experiences, and physical and coordination improvements are all positive factors associated with multi-sport participation. The most important part is to remember that the ultimate goal of sports is for children to have fun and develop lifelong healthy habits, so encouraging multi-sport participation will assist in their overall growth, development, and well-being.
For additional information, refer to the clinical report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes, September 2016. You may also refer to the included infographic found within the above article regarding guidance for youth sports participation.