Traditionally, sport participation revolved around the academic year where student-athletes could play a seasonal sport. For example, football would be played in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball or track and field in the spring. This format exposed youth athletes to a variety of movement demands and skill acquisition. In more recent times, young athletes have been given the option of playing a select sport year-round. Club teams, summer teams, tournaments and clinics provide individuals with the opportunity to play and compete in their sport, regardless of season. This has lead to the concept of early specialization where young athletes elect not to participate in other sports in favor of their chosen sport. While it may seem that focusing on one sport may be optimal for performance development, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that early specialization can be harmful rather than helpful to athletic development.
A new study published ahead of print in the American Journal of Sports Medicine sought to determine if high levels of sport specialization were associated with history of injuries in young athletes. A sample of 2011 youth athletes between the ages of 12-18 years (989 female, 1022 male) completed a survey regarding their level of sport specialization, weekly and yearly sport training volume and their injury history. The athletes were subsequently categorized according to specialization status as low, moderate or high as well as if they were meeting or exceeding the recommended training volume recommendations. Associations between specialization status, training volume and injury occurrence from the preceding year were assessed.
The results showed that athletes categorized as highly specialized had a greater odds of reporting a previous injury of any kind as well as an overuse injury in the previous year compared to athletes with low specialization status (p <0.05). In addition, athletes that participated in a specific sport for more than 8 months of the year had a greater odds of reporting both upper and lower body overuse injuries in the previous year (p <0.05). Finally, athletes participating in more hours of training per week than their age were more likely to have experienced an injury in the previous year (p <0.05). Thus, both high specialization status and exceeding training volume guidelines are associated with greater injuries among youth athletes. As such, parents should limit their children’s sport participation to within the recommended levels as well as encourage participation in a variety of sports.
Post, E. G., Trigsted, S. M., Riekena, J. W., Hetzel, S., McGuine, T. A., Brooks, M. A., & Bell, D. R. (2017). The association of sport specialization and training volume with injury history in youth athletes. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, In Press.