Samantha Winder, ATC, Cache Valley Hospital

The topic of early sports specialization has received significant attention in the media and medical world over the past few years. More children are driven to choose one specific sport to play at an earlier age in hopes to be great enough for college. As they grow up, many of them lose their love for the game, or deal with severe injuries that require surgery at an earlier age.

Advocates of single-sport specialization point out the necessity of year-round skill development in order to give athletes a chance at becoming good enough to play a sport beyond high school. However, single-sport specialization has been identified as “damaging” for the future physical and mental health of the athlete. Doctors recommend that intense training for a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success, while minimizing risk for injury and psychological stress, according to an article in The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Risks of single-sport training include increased injury rate, increased burnout and drop out from sports, social isolation, physiological imbalances, shortened careers, limited range of motor skills and decreased participation in sport activities as an adult.

Although injury thresholds are yet to be determined for specific activities and age groups, some data, published in the Journal of Athletic Training, suggests a general guideline of no more than 16-20 hours per week for athletes involved in early sport specialization. Also, make sure they rest and include a strength and conditioning program in their schedule.

The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine also reported that The International Olympic Committee recommends that children are encouraged to participate in a variety of sport and recreational activities to develop a wide range of skills and avoid specialization until at least puberty (about age 12-14). Research published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology suggests that sport sampling take place from ages 6-12, specialization from age 13-15 and investment in a single sport from age 16 on. Early diversification followed by specialization may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries, aid in motor development and longer participation, improving the chances of success.

In addition, there are plenty of cross-sport skills that can be learned in one activity then applied to other activities. Athletes can learn or enhance their hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, explosion, communication or athletic agility by participating in a variety of sports. Moreover, early diversification does not seem to hinder elite-level participation in sports. In fact, most athletes who go on to play in college and above are multi-sport athletes.

Just remember why kids play — for fun. Let them play and be a part of a wide variety of activities that will help them develop a wide range of skills, which helps prevent injuries, helps develop their minds and encourages life-long activity.