What is Sport Specialization?
In general, most might say that in order for an athlete to be considered ‘elite’ in a sport, they must start young and focus on that sport and that sport alone. Recent students, however, are showing otherwise. Currently, there is an increasing trend in young athletes (youth and high school) participating in what professionals call ‘sport specialization’. George Eldayrie, M.D., primary care orthopedist and sports medicine specialist at Florida Orthopaedic Institute, weighed in on the definition.
“When we talk about it in a broad sense, in the sports medicine world, there are different aspects of sport specialization,” said Dr. Eldayrie. “The biggest issue is kids specializing a little too early. We define that as when a kid is pushed into doing, or chooses on their own to do, just one particular sport or one position. Usually before the age of 12 is when they are considered specialized.”
What are the dangers?
Doctors and medical professionals alike are now conducting studies that show that young athletes specializing in one sport may actually be hindering their own performance. Experts are attributing an increased risk of injury to the lack of diversity in movements. In sports like tennis, baseball and even cross-country, the repetitive motions tend to neglect beneficial stress on other muscles and often leads to overuse injuries.
“If a kid is doing one particular sport or activity too much, they are at risk for overuse injuries and certain types of issues related to how their bones are growing,” said Dr. Eldayrie. “Most kids do better when they are involved in multiple different sports. Those athletes end up doing better in the long run. They become a little more athletic. They develop skills. They stress other joints and parts of their body to help adapt for other types of athletic success.”
Why is it so prevalent?
Across the board, sports medicine specialists say that youth sport specialization comes down to two main factors: culture and parenting. With an increasing glorification of professional sports, both athletes and their parents are hoping to achieve those same levels of success.
“Sports are such a huge part of the American culture,” Dr. Eldayrie said. “Eighty percent of kids who reach an elite level of sports think that they are going to go professional. Realistically, less than one percent of athletes are going to go professional.”
He continued, “I think there’s a movement where we are really pushing our kids a little too much and starting them a little too early. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s great to put your kid in a sport; there’s so many benefits to that, but it’s worthwhile to spice it up [and experiment with different sports].”
How can it be prevented?
Dr. Eldayrie is confident that data and further research will decrease the amount of youth athletes specializing in sports which, in turn, will lead to a decrease in overuse injuries and related conditions.
“[Again,] specialization is not a huge problem when you reach the elite level, but it’s more so the developmental stage. It’s the ten-year old playing baseball twelve months out of the year. Show them the proof. Yes, these injuries are happening more frequently and there is data to support that athletes are doing better when they aren’t sport specialized so early. As we continue to gather data, hopefully mindsets will change.”