single sport decision vs specialization
Sports / Orthopedic

Does a Young Athlete’s Sports Decision Determine Future Success?

Jul 27 2018

Everything you need to know about choosing one sport for your child rather than multiple

With the steady increase in club sports and competition, many children feel pressured to limit their exercise toward one sport and train with great intensity. Culture often creates a widespread mentality that success comes to those who narrow their efforts at early ages. This leaves parents, athletic trainers and coaches wondering when their athletes should begin single-sport specialization.

Mercy Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine is here help determine whether sports specialization or diversification is right for your athlete’s age group. Our physicians and orthopedic experts offer the following recommendations:

Delay single-sport specialization decisions

Mercy Health Orthopedic Surgeon and Sport Medicine Specialist Amelia Wiggins, D.O., says young athletes should begin specializing in one sport during late adolescence. Final growth spurts typically occur for individuals who are ages 14 and older.

This decreases the chances of overuse injuries – e.g., stress fractures – that may permanently affect a child’s growing bones. Other early sports specialization risks include burnout, disengagement from physical activity and reduction in overall athleticism.

Do athletes who specialize in a single sport before adolescence have an advantage?

A few superstars, such as Gabby Douglas, Serena Williams and LeBron James, have practiced their sports since early childhood. However, most of the world’s elite athletes did not specialize in one area until their late teens and early twenties.

Rather than specialization, diversification seems to be a key indicator for future excellence. Multiple sports backgrounds help athletes develop well-rounded skills including flexibility, endurance, strength and sportsmanship.

Studies by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine on college scholar athletes and Olympians further suggest that early specializations – outside of gymnastics and ice skating – have little effect on athletic performance.

Mercy Health advises parents and children to choose two or three sports until high school. This helps the young athletes sample different physical activities to determine which one is the best fit for their personalities and physiques.

Tips for parents and coaches about single-sport specialization 

  • Share positive, trustworthy dialogue with young athletes
  • Encourage children below 14 years old to sample different physical activities
  • Ensure rest days occur at least once a week
  • Schedule extended time away from sports for physical recovery
  • Watch for symptoms of athletic burnout
  • Limit high-density competition scheduling to age appropriate guidelines
  • Communicate unconditional support for young athletes’ decisions

Whether children participate in multiple sports or a single sport, balance is vital for long-term wellness. Continuously talk with athletes to see if they are physically, mentally and socially content with their selected activities.

If you are interested in connecting with a Mercy Health athletic trainer or physician to discuss strategies for healthy and balanced lifestyles, contact our team today. We’re here for you on every step of the journey.

Interested in learning more about sports and teens? Find out if your teenage daughter is more susceptible to sports injuries.

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