A recent 2020 study examined current Major League Baseball (MLB) players and the correlation with youth sport specialization, with a specific focus on sport specialization trends with professional baseball players. The study found that the majority of professional baseball players did not sport specialize in youth sports, but around half (44%) of the subjects surveyed did begin specializing around age 14. The authors highlight the fact that this study illustrates that early sport specialization may not be necessary for advancement to professional baseball, prompting additional research to examine the impact of early sport specialization applied to other sports beyond baseball. Future research should continue to explore the benefits of youth sport specialization, as well as the potential costs and damage kids experience when choosing to play just one sport instead of sampling a variety of different sports.
Better odds, but at what cost?
While reading the study examining sport specialization, a few important findings stood out that should be further examined. First, the study suggests that most current Major League Baseball players did not specialize in youth sports, but by age 14 roughly half had chosen to specialize in baseball. A second important finding from the study revealed that about 25% of current MLB players “recalled sustaining an injury that they attributed to single sport specialization…suggesting that early sport specialization can be a potential factor in the occurrence of early sport-related injuries in baseball.” While additional studies need to be completed to add validity to these findings, the current study provides evidence of the following:
- Young athletes may not need to specialize in order to “make it” in their sport, as most MLB players sampled sports rather than choosing the route of sport specialization.
- By around age 14 significantly more baseball players chose to specialize, providing empirical evidence that their single-sport participation (baseball) could have contributed to their accelerated baseball development and eventual goal of making it to Major League Baseball.
- Roughly 1 out of 4 current MLB players claim that they experienced injuries because of sport specialization.
While additional studies need to confirm these early findings, the results from this study provide evidence that as kids age sport specialization appears to accelerate athletic development, but the odds for physical injury because of sport specialization increase, too. Another issue not mentioned in the study but also commonly found with sport specialization is increased chance for sport burnout, a condition that can prompt athletes to quit sports prematurely.
The debate over sport specialization versus sport sampling has been going on for the last 20+ years, but this is one of the first studies I have found that attempts to better understand both the pros and cons relating to the decision to specialize. While more research is needed, early results support young athletes sampling as many sports as possible, but as kids age and display an interest and ability toward one sport the decision to specialize may be one to consider. Finally, kids who specialize may be at greater risk for injury (as was found in the current study), as well as sport burnout, two factors that can lead to a premature sport retirement. It is important that parents take all of these factors into consideration when mapping out future sport options as they apply to future sport goals.