Organized youth sports have become increasingly competitive, and it’s more common now for young athletes to focus their energies on a single sport. Experts say that sports specialization at a young age can result in injury, while playing multiple sports can lead to better performance and less burnout.
“Sports specialization is when your child trains for more than eight months a year in a single sport,” says Neva Avery, a coordinator of UNC Health Wellness Programs. “While it’s exciting to watch your young child excel in a sport, resist the temptation to focus intensively on one sport at the exclusion of others year-round.”
Here are three reasons it’s important to expose children to a variety of sports throughout their youth instead of focusing on just one.
1. Sports specialization can lead to overuse injuries.
The biggest concern with early specialization is a greater risk of overuse injuries, especially if your young athlete has not gone through puberty. Before this time, muscles and tendons are still developing.
“Doing the same motions year-round puts wear and tear on these developing muscles and bones,” Avery says.
Young athletes specializing in one sport don’t get the time they need to rest between seasons. The result is overuse injuries that can progress to severe injuries.
“For example, the shoulder and elbow surgeries we were seeing in adult baseball players we’re now seeing in really young baseball players because they’re starting to specialize at such a young age,” Avery says. “They are getting overuse injuries much earlier than in the past.”
Athletes ages 7 to 18 who train for their organized sport more hours per week than their age or who train twice as many hours as they play freely have an increased risk of serious overuse injuries, according to one study.
2. Early specialization can lead to burnout.
There is also an emotional toll to early specialization.
“When they are in one sport from the age of 6 on and don’t have the experience of participating in different sports to even find out if they like something else or to meet other kids, it can affect them socially,” Avery says. “And we can burn a kid out.”
Burnout is mental and physical exhaustion.
“If they’re just doing one sport all year long starting at age 6, by the time they’re in high school, some of them are done and don’t want to play anymore,” Avery says.
Also, travel sports leagues tend to have a higher level of competition, which can put undue pressure on young kids.
“They’re yelled at a lot throughout these games, but they’re so young. And then it makes them afraid to make mistakes. They need to just be learning skills at this age,” Avery says.
3. Exposure to other sports can improve overall athleticism.
Encourage your young athlete to try multiple sports. Doing so now provides different fundamental skills that can help your child be successful later on.
In fact, studies of college-level and Olympic athletes found that the majority of them played multiple sports growing up and did not specialize early.
“We develop different skills participating in different sports. For example, a soccer player who participates on their swim team in the summer maintains their cardiovascular conditioning while giving their lower-body muscles and joints—hips, knees, ankles and feet—a break from running and cutting,” Avery says. “Or a football player who wants to learn to be faster can do track. We can see skills translate from one sport to the other.”
Worried about youth sports injuries? Talk to your child’s doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.