By Eric Martin
MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
Specialization is not a new topic facing athletes and parents.
In a 1989 study by Hill and Simons, athletic directors indicated that the three-sport athletes of the past were being replaced by athletes who only participated in a single sport. Multiple athletic directors indicated that the decrease of multi-sport participation was a concern for all involved in the sport environment as increased emphasis on sport specialization was not in the true vision of high school sports.
Even though the distress concerning sport specialization is not a new topic, the rise of club sports and year-round travel teams have increased the number of youth athletes who are forced to make a choice between playing multiple sports or focusing their time and training efforts solely on one sport. The decision to focus solely on one sport sometimes is done by athletes (or their parents) who believe that quitting other sports is the sole way to earn a coveted college scholarship.
However, even though counter intuitive, sport specialization may be hampering their pursuit to play at the next level.
Elite level achievement in sport is rare, with statistics showing that only 0.12 percent of high school athletes in basketball and football eventually reach the professional level. To combat these odds, many in popular media including Malcolm Gladwell have forwarded Anders Ericcson’s proposal that to become an expert in a field, an individual must accumulate 10,000 hours of practice.
To achieve this aim, many parents and athletes disregard other sports believing that extra exposure to a single sport may result in accumulating these hours quicker and increase an athlete's chances of elite skill achievement. Reducing the achievement of sport excellence to solely practice hours overlooks the importance that developmental, psychosocial, and motivational factors play in the achievement of high level success in youth. Further, several research studies have found that elite athletes typically fall short of this 10,000 hour milestone.
Simply accumulating a magic number of hours does not guarantee sport success, and in fact, trying to accumulate these hours too early can lead to many different negative outcomes for youth.
Sport specialization has been shown to have a variety of negative physiological and psychological outcomes for youth athletes. Typically, athletes who specialize in one sport play that sport year-round with little or no offseason. In these cases, athletes who continually perform repetitive motions such as throwing or jumping can experience overuse injuries that can range from tendinitis to torn ligaments.
In addition to the increased risk of injury, youth who specialize and play a single sport year-round are at risk for psychological issues as well. Youth who play a single sport are less likely to allow for proper recovery and face the increased chance of burnout or decreases in motivation that may result in leaving sport entirely. Additionally, as practice time demands and multiple league involvement increases, youth may feel added pressure to succeed due to the increased time and financial costs incurred by parents.
Finally, youth who specialize early in only one sport do not develop the fundamental motor skills that help them stay active as adults, instead only developing a very narrow skill set of a single sport.
If the dangers of sport specialization do not encourage multisport participation, a majority of studies have shown that sport specialization does not increase long-term sport achievement. In fact, most studies indicate that athletes who reach the highest level of sport achievement typically played a variety of sports until after they were well into high school.
For example, a study with British athletes found that youth who played three or more sports at the ages of 11, 13, and 15 had a significantly higher likelihood of playing on a national team at ages 16 and 18. These athletes had a more rounded set of skills, were more refreshed for their chosen sport, and were more psychologically and emotionally ready to perform due to their experiences in a number of sports.
A study recently conducted by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports with collegiate athletes showed similar results as the British athlete study. In the ISYS study, 1,036 athletes from three Division I universities were asked to report their past youth sport participation. On average, youth participated in three or more sports in elementary and middle school. The number of sports youth participated in decreased with each year of high school, but even with the decrease of participation, a larger number of individuals played more than one sport during every year of high school including senior year than those who played a single sport.
Even though a majority of athletes did play at least two sports throughout high school, several athletes did indicate that they specialized in one sport indicating that there are multiple pathways to elite sport achievement.
Athletes were also asked for their perception of how important it was to specialize in one sport in order to earn a college scholarship. On a scale of 1-9, athletes felt that specializing in one sport prior to high school was neither important nor unimportant (4.97).
Sport specialization is not a new issue, but that does not minimize the damage that can occur if athletes are overtaxed early in their development. Each athlete is unique, and each situation requires care. If an athlete does decide to play in only one sport, the decision should be made in regards to the athlete’s interest and development, not just in the pursuit of a college scholarship. Additionally, if athletes specialize in one sport, it is critical to understand that youth are developing and proper recovery is critical both physically and psychologically.
Early specialization in sport is an issue that is not going to go away, but for coaches, parents, and athletes this decision should be made with a long-term perspective and with the athletes’ long-term well-being central to the choice.
Martin is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. His research interests include athlete motivation and development of passion in youth, sport specialization, and coaches’ perspectives on working with the millennial athlete. He has led many sessions of the MHSAA Captains Leadership Clinic and consulted with junior high, high school, and collegiate athletes. If you have questions or comments, contact him at [email protected].
This week's edition highlights the MHSAA Girls Volleyball, 8-Player Football and Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals.
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Nov. 15: Football record breakers, 2022-23 MHSAA postseason attendance - Listen
Nov. 8: MHSAA Boys Soccer, Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals reviews - Listen
Nov. 1: MHSAA Girls Volleyball Tournament schedule, Football Playoffs first-round review - Listen
Oct. 26: Lower Peninsula Girls Golf Finals, Boys Tennis Finals review - Listen
Oct. 18: MHSAA Football Playoff selection, Bear Lake football coach Sam Mullet - Listen
Oct. 11: Upper Peninsula soccer, MHSAA sports participation excels nationally - Listen
Oct. 4: Jackson Lumen Christi's Herb Brogan, MHSAA Sportsmanship Summits - Listen
Sept. 24: All-woman football officiating crew, Powers North Central's record winning streak ends - Listen
Sept. 21: 35th MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards, Grass Lake QB Brayden Lape - Listen
Sept. 14: Athletic director education, MHSAA video library - Listen
Sept. 7: Adjustments to 11-player football, boys soccer Finals schedules - Listen
Aug. 31: New out-of-state opponents rules, football record book updates - Listen
Aug. 24: MHSAA.com coverage ramps up, "Made in Michigan" tells us where they are now - Listen