Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations

In a review published in Sports Health, Neeru Jayanthi discusses the evidence for and against sports specialization in young athletes, specifically those under the age of 12. He begins by defining sport specialization as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports. He then compiles a table that succinctly displays the results of his literature review. He has reviewed 12 studies, in which he has identified the type of sport, type of athletes involved in the study, age at which they began their training of the sport, and the age at which they specialized. With the exception of two studies, both of which studied rhythmic gymnastics, the studies showed that most elite athletes had diversified early and specialized after 12 years of age. He goes on to discuss other factors that may impact success in sports, such as personal enjoyment of the sport and self-motivation. Lastly, he discusses how injury and burnout may be a result of high-intensity training. He concludes by stating that some specialization is needed to attain elite-level skills, however, it should be delayed until late adolescence to minimize injury and burnout.

This is a similar conclusion that was drawn by David Epstein in The Sports Gene. He too seems to conclude that early specialization may be harmful instead of beneficial to children aiming for elite status in a sport. He agrees that some sports do require early specialization, such as gymnastics, but that is only because they are able to perform at this elite level before they go through puberty. Otherwise, based on the studies he has reviewed, it doesn’t seem required to attain this level (Epstein, 51-52).

I agree with the conclusions drawn from both Jayanthi’s review, as well as Epstein’s. Early diversification allows for children to gain experience in multiple sports, allowing them to acquire skills that may be beneficial. Just like it is encouraged for students to study many different subjects in order to work both sides of their brains, and to be well-rounded students, the same can be said for athletes. Not only does diversification prevent burnout and injuries, but perhaps it could possibly aid the athlete in seeing the sport in a new way, eventually taking what he or she has learned from previous sports and applying it to their specialized sport. Even certain professional athletes today didn’t specialize until much later, if ever. For example, Danny Ainge, who is currently the general manager for the Boston Celtics, is the only player to be named a high school first team All-American in football, basketball and baseball. He then went on to play basketball at Brigham Young University, where he also played professional baseball for three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. After, he went on to play for the Celtics. There are other players like him, who were double or even triple sport college athletes. Did not specializing hurt their careers? Or did it help them? Could they have been even better at one sport if they had specialized? I like that this article also took into account (briefly) motivation and enjoyment of the sport. That isn’t something that has been discussed in the book yet, and I am excited to see what Epstein has to say about it.

Read the article here.

Works cited:

Epstein, David J. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. 2014.

Jayanthi, Neeru, et al. “Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations.” Sports Health, 5(3), Apr. 2013, 251–257.


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