Sports Specialization: What's Safe, What's Not

Early sports specialization brings some rewards, but also many risks.

Soccer game heading the ball near goal
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Kids often clamor for sports specialization without even realizing it. They want to join elite travel teams at younger and younger ages, practice their chosen sport year-round, and they consider any other sport or activity a distraction. And many coaches and leagues are all too willing to make that happen. Yet experts, such as physicians and even pro athletes, warn that early specialization is counter-productive and can even be dangerous.

Parents are often stuck in the middle. When are you nurturing a child's talent—and when are you pushing too hard for a dream that's unlikely to come true? When are you supporting your child's passion, and when are you caving in to pressure from a coach or fellow parent? Learn more about the consequences of sports specialization so you and your athlete can make smart decisions.

What Is Sports Specialization?

In general, specialization in sports means playing (or training for) one sport, exclusively, year-round. One study of young athletes used a scale to rate kids' level of specialization. Researchers gave one point for each of the following, for a maximum score of six:

  • Training more than 75 percent of the time in one sport
  • Training to improve skill; or missing time with friends due to training
  • Quitting other sports to focus on one sport
  • Considering one sport more important than others
  • Traveling out of state regularly
  • Training more than eight months a year, or competing more than six months a year

The Risks of Sports Specialization

In that study, kids who had suffered sports injuries scored higher on the specialization scale. Overuse injuries are one of the biggest concerns when athletes train intensively for one sport.

Relatedly, specialization can limit normal motor skill development. If a child is spending all his time on the soccer field, he won't get a chance to learn or improve the skills needed for swimming or volleyball or bicycling. A softball pitcher will spend the majority of her time throwing, instead of running or even catching.

Too much of a good thing can also lead to anxiety and burnout. Simply put, specialization can take the fun right out of sports. A study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior reported that young adults who had specialized as kids were less likely to participate in sports in adulthood. Kids who are very busy with one sport may miss the opportunity to stumble onto a different sport they might enjoy for years to come, because they aren't trying lots of different activities.

Finally, there's no guarantee that sports specialization will lead to a successful athletic career, despite the pressure some kids and parents feel ("If he doesn't play on this travel team now, he won't be able to play in high school, and then he won't get a college scholarship...").

John P. DiFiori, MD, president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and team physician for UCLA athletics, discussed this at a meeting of the society. "With the exception of select sports such as gymnastics in which the elite competitors are very young, the best data we have would suggest that the odds of achieving elite levels with this method are exceedingly poor. In fact, some studies indicate that early specialization is less likely to result in success than participating in several sports as a youth, and then specializing at older ages."

The Rewards of Sports Specialization

Once your child does reach adolescence, specialization is not as risky and can even bring some benefits. Specialization helps kids develop strong skills in their chosen sport. If they are successful, they can build good confidence in their abilities. They may be able to travel to interesting places and learn to get along with lots of different people. And yes—maybe they be one of the very select few to earn a sports scholarship or create a career for themselves in sports. If your child is truly devoted to her sport, has fun playing it, and takes precautions to reduce the risk of injury, then specializing may be rewarding after all.


Brenner JS. Clinical Report: Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young AthletesPediatrics. 2016;138(3).

Jayanthi NA, LaBella CR, Fischer D, Pasulka J, Dugas LR. Sports-specialized Intensive Training and the Risk of Injury in Young AthletesAmerican Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;43(4):794-801.

Myer JD, Jayanathi NA, Difiori JP et al. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health. 2015;7(5):437-42.

Russell WD, Limle, AN. The Relationship Between Youth Sport Specialization and Involvement in Sport and Physical Activity in Young Adulthood. Journal of Sport Behavior. 2013;36(1).

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