Sport specialization is a popular choice for many youth athletes, but it wasn’t always this way. Today, many kids choose one sport and play it year-round (sport specialization), while kids from previous generations rarely specialized but instead changed sports with each new season. Now that sport specialization has been around long enough to examine the physical and psychological effects of playing just one sport, several big questions loom. Does sport specialization help or hurt kids with sport development? How and why did we move away from sport sampling to seeing so many sport specialists today? And finally, can we assume kids who specialize get better at sports than kids who do not — and if so, at what mental and/or physical cost?
How sport specialization evolved
As sport popularity in the United States has grown, more sport opportunities for kids have emerged. Random pickup games have been replaced by organized local youth sport leagues, and schools across America began increasing their sport offerings to kids as well (especially as this applies to girl sports). Consequently, over time, more families sought out individual coaching and additional leagues beyond what their community offered, and with the growing demand for more sports came a greater interest in playing specific sports year-round. Over time, kids who wanted to continue playing their favorite sport were able to do so, and herein is where the sport specialist model emerged.
Today, if your son or daughter wants to play baseball, softball, basketball, or just about any sport you can think of, there are almost certainly opportunities to play that sport year-round. New sport leagues continue to meet the demands of families wanting ongoing specific sport experiences, leaving the modern-day big sport choice: To specialize or sample?
The good & bad of sport specialization
As with any life experience, there are potential good and bad things that can occur when kids specialize in one sport. First, we’ll take a look at some of the potential positive outcomes of sport specialization:
- Kids can play a sport they enjoy for longer periods of time (in some cases, year-round).
- Kids who specialize may be at an advantage for more rapid sport skill acquisition and mastery compared to kids who only play the sport for a few weeks/months each year.
- Sport specialization may provide more skilled coaches, and possibly expose kids to different parts of the country by means of their sport travel schedule.
- Sport specialization often allows for competing against some of the best competition in your town, state, or even nationally.
- Possibly a greater chance for a future college athletic scholarship, but this is not in any way guaranteed.
While all of the potential advantages could happen to your child if he or she specializes, there are also risks when it comes to sport specialization, including the following:
- Overuse of specific muscles used in the sport may lead to greater likelihood for injury.
- Intense sport schedule may leave your child little free time to engage in other school activities, clubs, and academic experiences.
- Greater costs, especially as this applies to regularly updating equipment, buying uniforms, and paying travel costs.
- Greater risk for sport fatigue, exhaustion, and mental burnout, sometimes leading to premature quitting.
- Sports may soon feel less enjoyable and a lot more like a full-time job for your child, zapping the fun he or she used to have when involved in a more balanced sport schedule.
The decision around sport specialization is a big one for many families, especially with kids who have interest and talent specific to one sport. Kids who specialize in one sport might get better at the sport faster that their peers, but those advances could come at a cost by means of increased risk of injury and/or greater chance for mental distress, burnout, and emotional issues. I have witnessed all of these scenarios play out at my office, with some kids benefiting from specialization, and others who quit sports prematurely because their sport more resembled a job than a voluntary, fun youth experience. It is for these reasons that parents are encouraged to sit down, examine all options, and come to a decision that is best for their family.