The Dangers of Youth Sport Specialization and the Benefits of Diversification

We all like to encourage our children to participate in youth sports—the social and psychological lessons it teaches them about teamwork, fair play, and work ethic are bolstered by the numerous physical benefits.  Parents, coaches and others tend to be especially encouraging when a young athlete shows promise in a particular sport. However, while that talent can and should be fostered, there is such a thing as too much focus.

Specialization is the term for intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others. Diversification is a general training approach that “focuses on developing basic motor skills, common tactical strategies, non-specific physical training, and on the enjoyment of participation.” It is less structured and involves playing multiple sports.

While it may seem only natural that a child who displays talent in a single sport should focus intensely on it, this may actually offer greater risk of physical injury and psychological stress, which is why experts recommend holding off on such a course until high school.

The Pros and Cons of Specialization

It’s not right to paint specialization as purely negative. To be sure, there are some benefits to it. It’s important to compare those benefits against the drawbacks to get a better picture of the practice. So, let’s now consider some the pros and the cons of specialization.

Pros:

  • Improvement in athletes’ skills and performance within their chosen sport
  • Encouragement of deep commitment to their sport
  • Exclusive opportunities, including private instructions from qualified coaches, ability to compete in high-profile tournaments and top-tier teams
  • The chance to attend prominent training academies
  • Recognition of college and professional coaches and scouts
  • Improved chances at earning college scholarships early on

Cons:

  • Overuse injuries from repetitive strain (such as tennis elbow, swimmer’s shoulder, turf toe, runner’s knee, Achilles Tendinitis, and more)
  • Fatigue from constant travelling
  • Mental stress from the pressures of expectation
  • Less downtime and time for scholastics
  • Less time to engage with friends and a diverse peer group
  • Missing out on the benefits of free play
  • Taking the fun out of sports
  • Unreasonable expectations of collegiate or professional success
  • Financial strain on family due to high cost of travel, tournament and program enrollment, and training

(Source: inCourage)

Mental Health Issues

As you can see, the cons of specialization outnumber and outweigh the pros. While the physical and financial drawbacks should by no means be downplayed, the mental issues, which often tend to get overlooked, deserve extra attention.

The mental well being of young athletes must come first, always. But even from a more pragmatic standpoint, in regard to the success rate of specialization, numerous studies have shown that the practice “may contribute to burnout and dropping out of sports” altogether.

The Benefits of Diversification

Encouraging youths to participate in diversification is not simply a matter of protecting them from the risks of specialization. Multi-sport play comes with its own benefits.

In an article from The Wall Street Journal, multiple sports participation was encouraged by no less an authority than Stephen Curry, who despite being a basketball prodigy at an early age, “also played some baseball, football, soccer, and basically everything else in a sports buffet.”

There is plenty of consensus out there that backs up this model. The International Olympic Committee, put out a consensus statement on youth athletic development, in which they wrote, “Children who participate in a variety of sports and specialise (sic) only after reaching the age of puberty, for example, tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialise (sic) early.

Ultimately, the question of how best to encourage young athletes requires a cohesive, sensible, and sensitive approach—one that acknowledges what their overall goals are, while never neglecting the physical, emotional, and psychological effects it may have one them. When taking all this into consideration, the drawbacks of specialization, in comparison to the benefits of diversification, should help provide a safe and healthy path.