To Specialize or Not to Specialize? Assessing the Risks and Rewards of Playing Only One Sport

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

A common concern of parents with young athletes is whether they should have their child specialize in a particular sport. Athletes have been specializing earlier and earlier in their athletic careers in order to attempt to achieve high or elite athletic status. Some parents feel pressure from coaches to keep their kid training for one sport day in and day out in order to keep up with traveling or competitive teams—if they don’t, they run the risk that their child will be a step behind everyone they are competing against. As a result, sport becomes more structured and scheduled while being less about fun and spontaneity. While parents and coaches have the best intentions, specializing, especially early on, could have adverse effects on the child’s athletic future. So, instead of asking, “At what age should my child specialize at one sport?” parents should instead ask, “What are the benefits of specialization compared to being a well rounded athlete in multiple sports?”

For starters, the impact of specialization depends on the sport. Specializing in gymnastics is beneficial considering that gymnasts’ athletic careers start in their mid-teens. With that being said, specializing at an early age in order to play in college may work against the athlete. In Changing the Game Project’s article, “Is it Wise to Specialize,” they list multiple research-backed traits that multi-sport athletes have compared to one-sport specialized athletes. Some of these include, “better overall skills and ability,” and “smarter, more creative players.” Not to mention that the majority of collegiate athletes played more than one sport growing up. Playing multiple sports not only makes your athlete more well rounded as a person, but can also help them athletically in the long run.

While research has shown that playing multiple sports helps make athletes more well rounded, early sport specialization also has its benefits. These benefits include success early on in a sport (which can be helpful within certain sports as discussed about gymnastics earlier), and short-term access to better coaches, programs, and competitions. However, there are many risks associated with specialization in sports. One of the main concerns is injury. A study at Loyola University found that athletes who specialized were 70-90% more likely to be injured. Other negative affects of specialization early on are burnout, adult physical inactivity, stress, lack of enjoyment, and quitting.

So when should your child specialize in one particular sport? If you were basing your decision off of research the answer would be never—they can always be doing something more than just their one favorite sport; however, ultimately it is up to the athlete and the parents. Even so, don’t follow the trends regarding when your athlete “needs” to specialize by. Focus on having a well-rounded athlete who can split their time between multiple activities instead of just one—this will prepare them to be a well-rounded person in all that they do outside the world of athletics.

For further information on specialization, click here and here.

Alexa-Jane Hoidahl

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