Developing Great Athletes: Early vs. Late Specialization

In the past, most young athletes were encouraged to play multiple sports in order to develop better overall athletic ability. However, youth sports has changed drastically, seasons are longer and kids are encouraged to compete in year-round leagues in hope of reaching elite status at a younger age. Parents and coaches hear stories of Michelle Wie and the Williams sisters, and how they were holding a golf club and swinging a racquet while still in diapers, and figure the key to athletic success MUST be specializing at a young age. However, the medical community, trainers and many high profile athletes are arguing that this trend may be detrimental to the development of young athletes. Unfortunately, a lot of the support for and against early specialization has been anecdotal. Only recently have researchers started to look at the short and long term effects of this new trend. Continue reading below in order to gain a better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of early sport specialization.

Research proven benefits of early sport specialization:

  • Better coaching and skill instruction;
  • Better skill development through deliberate practice

Unsupported reasons athletes specialize early:

  • To gain a competitive edge;
  • To master skills faster;
  • Early talent recognition;
  • Increased opportunity for scholarships/professional contracts;
  • Fear of falling behind

Research proven disadvantages of early sport specialization:

  • Athletes develop a significantly higher number of acute and overuse injuries;
  • Loss of time, money and missed educational opportunities;
  • Athlete burnout, anxiety and decreased enjoyment;
  • Inhibition of proper physical development;
  • Overtraining – year-long training often overlooks proper recovery;
  • Breakdown of family structure due to time, money and sacrifices of the whole family.

Benefits of multi-sport participation

  • Linked to a longer athletic career and does NOT hinder reaching elite levels;
  • Allows for the development of a broader range of fundamental motor skills;
  • Increased motivation and enjoyment;
  • Allows for periods of rest and active recovery;
  • Leads to expert development and transferable motor skills

Current recommendations include:

  • Children should not play one sport more than 8 months per year;
  • The early childhood years (ages 3-7) should focus on fundamental motor skill competency through a variety of activities.
  • In the upper elementary years (ages 7-11) children should sample many sports and refine fundamental skills.
  • In the middle school years (ages 11-13) continue sport sampling but can begin to specialize in 1-2 key sports.
  • In the high school years (ages 14-18) one can continue to engage in multiple sports or enhance skillfulness through specialization.
  • Young athletes should have a minimum of 1-4 off weeks per year to prevent injury and burnout;
  • No more hours per week than their age;
  • Education should not be sacrificed at the expense of sports. Home schooling and online education in place of regular schooling have a major negative impact on the overall social development of young athletes.

Parents, coaches, athletes and trainers must understand that early sport specialization will not guarantee future athletic success. A recent poll found that 88% of Olympic athletes and 70% of Division 1 athletes did not specialize in one sport until at least the age of 12. Athletes like Tiger Woods who started specializing at a very young age are much more rare than the multi-sport athlete who specialized in a sport later. Parents must weigh the pros and cons of early sport specialization and decide if it is right for their child and family.

Normand et al. (2017). A Review of Early Sport Specialization in Relation to the Development of a Young Athlete. International Journal of Kinesiology and Sport Science. 5:2, 37-42.