By Jamie McFarland

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A frequent question parents of young athletes have is: how young should they specialize in one sport? This is particularly compounding if the young athlete has dreams of playing in college or even in the professional arena. J.J. Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans tweeted his thoughts on this in March of 2017. He said:

“If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child’s best interests in mind.”

So, what is sports specialization and what does the research show? Myer and colleagues defined sports specialization as year-round training (greater than eight months per year), choosing a single main sport, and/or quitting all other sports to focus on one sport. In 2016, The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) released a consensus statement of this topic. In a paper, it noted the assumptions that to become an expert or an elite athlete, early training will distinguish those who do and who do not become an expert or an elite athlete. These suggestions are related to “deliberate practice being highly effortful and relevant to performance improvement, with researchers proposing that anyone beginning deliberate practice early would have a benefit over peers starting later.”

The AOSSM noted suggestions from research that “early specialization isolates the young athlete from their peers (interferes with normal identity development) and increases the potential for burnout or withdrawal from sport as a result of chronic stress.” In a previous consensus statement from 2014, the authors found that “in overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports, a variety of physical and mental health concerns can be attributed to early sports specialization.” As part of the conclusions from Myer and colleagues, they agreed that “Children who specialize early (i.e. prior to maturation) may execute less age-appropriate sports skills, especially when they do not participate in as much unstructured free play as their peers. Without opportunities to experience sports diversification, children may not fully develop neuromuscular patterns that may be protective of injury.”

Whilst this sounds like scare tactics or fear mongering, it is important to note that the current evidence points to children being given more opportunities for “free unstructured play” or in layman’s terms the opportunities for kids to be kids, to run around, to tumble, to climb etc. as this will help improve their motor skill development. Myer and colleagues went on to say that children who do choose to specialize should have “their activities monitored closely for indicators of burnout, overuse injury or potential decrements in performance due to overtraining.” With youth who specialize in a single sport, having planned periods of isolated and focused integrative neuromuscular training to enhance diverse motor skill development and reduce injury risk factors is important.

Looking at the above research, it can be seen why one cannot put a specific age label on when a youth athlete should specialize in a particular sport. Children should be allowed to be children, as the skills and neuromuscular patterns they learn from growing can help reduce injury and better serve them later in their sporting careers.

For those young athletes who have a desire to play in college and professional levels, they should not be stopped from doing so; but rather as they grow and develop in their sport, they should be given extra opportunities to acquire additional skills and neuromuscular control.

— Jamie McFarland lives in Bend.