Single Sport Specialisation: How Young Is Too Young?
9 Nov 2015
There has been an increase in the participation of young people in organised sports over the past 15 years, with an associated trend to specialise in one sport at an early age. There are many factors that may contribute to a young person wanting to be a single sport athlete such as parental and coach pressure, the desire to become professional, or just to gain a competitive edge. The need to achieve, rather than participate and learn at an increasing earlier age is a worrying trend.
As a sports physiotherapist, my advice generally is to leave sports specialisation as late as possible to allow young athletes to attain a multitude of athletic skills, to develop an appreciation of different sports, learn about their own physical and mental strengths and weaknesses, and to avoid overload and overuse injuries associated with a single sport activity. But what’s the best age to start the progression to a single sport? From a performance perspective, does specialising “younger” increase your chance of making it to the elite level? And do younger single sport athletes sustain more injuries?
Let’s tackle the making it to the elite level question first. Looking into the literature, a variety of studies suggest that specialising in a sport after the age of 12 (regarded as late specialisation) may result in better athletic achievement. A study into elite and near-elite tennis players (1) found that the elites started intense training at the age of 13 as opposed to the near elites which started at 11. Lidor and Lavyan (2) retrospectively assessed 63 elite and 78 near-elite athletes from a variety of sports and reported that the athletes that made it the elite level were more likely to begin intense training after the age of 12 and were more likely to have played more than one sport in their developmental years. Three other studies that included analyses of swimmers and a variety of Olympic sports athletes have reported similar findings (3).
There may however be some benefit in the early development of highly technical sports such as gymnastics with one study reporting a positive correlation (4). Gymnastics however is a unique sport, with a very low average age amongst elite competitors. The 2012 USA Women’s Gymnastics Team had 5 team members with an average age of 16.2 years. If you wait until you’re 13 to start ramping up your training in gymnastics, you’ve probably missed the boat.
In general though, it seems pretty clear that it’s best to play a variety of sports in the younger years, and start to specialise in a sport after the age of 12 if the aim is to make it to the top.
There is some evidence that specialisation in a single sport increases the risk of sustaining an injury. Ruedl et al (5) performed an analysis on the frequencies and characteristics of injuries and illnesses during the 2012 Innsbruck Winter Youth Olympic Games and reported that those athletes who picked a main sport were at risk of injury - independent of age and number of hours trained. Another study (6) assessed 546 female basketball, soccer, and volleyball players in middle and high school and found a small but significant increase in the rate of knee pain (x1.5) in those athletes that specialised.
Although these are the results of just two studies and more research is required, I think most sports medical professionals would agree anecdotally that they see more overuse and overload injuries in kids who specialise in one sport at an early age. The muscles, ligaments, and bones of an adolescent are not mature and are prone to injury with repeated use.
For both performance and injury prevention reasons, keep young athletes playing a variety of sports until they reach 12 years of age, then progress into a single sport of choice if desired.
Carlson R. The socialization of elite tennis players in Sweden: an analysis of the players’ backgrounds and development. Sociol Sport J. 1988;5:241-256.
Lidor R, Lavyan A. A retrospective picture of early sport experiences among elite and near-elite Israeli athletes: developmental and psy- chological perspectives. Int J Sport Psychol. 2002;33:269-289.
Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, Labella C. Sports spe- cialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257.
Hume PA, Hopkins WG, Robinson DM, Robinson SM, Hollings SC. Predictors of attainment in rhythmic sportive gymnastics. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1994;33(4):367-377.
Ruedl G, Schobersberger W, Pocecco E, et al. Sport injuries and ill- nesses during the first Winter Youth Olympic Games 2012 in Inns- bruck, Austria. Br J Sports Med. 2012;46(15):1030-1037.
Hall R, Barber Foss K, Hewett TE, Myer GD. Sports specialization is associated with an increased risk of developing anterior knee pain in adolescent female athletes. J Sport Rehabil. 2015;24(1):31-35.
Feeley BT, Agel J, LaPrade RF. When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? Am J Sports Med March 30, 2015 ; published online before print March 30, 2015, doi:10.1177/0363546515576899
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