Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes

Sports Health. 2016 Jan-Feb;8(1):65-73. doi: 10.1177/1941738115614811. Epub 2015 Oct 30.


Context: Many coaches, parents, and children believe that the best way to develop elite athletes is for them to participate in only 1 sport from an early age and to play it year-round. However, emerging evidence to the contrary indicates that efforts to specialize in 1 sport may reduce opportunities for all children to participate in a diverse year-round sports season and can lead to lost development of lifetime sports skills. Early sports specialization may also reduce motor skill development and ongoing participation in games and sports as a lifestyle choice. The purpose of this review is to employ the current literature to provide evidence-based alternative strategies that may help to optimize opportunities for all aspiring young athletes to maximize their health, fitness, and sports performance.

Evidence acquisition: Nonsystematic review with critical appraisal of existing literature.

Study design: Clinical review.

Level of evidence: Level 4.

Conclusion: Based on the current evidence, parents and educators should help provide opportunities for free unstructured play to improve motor skill development and youth should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports during their growing years to influence the development of diverse motor skills. For those children who do choose to specialize in a single sport, periods of intense training and specialized sport activities should be closely monitored for indicators of burnout, overuse injury, or potential decrements in performance due to overtraining. Last, the evidence indicates that all youth should be involved in periodized strength and conditioning (eg, integrative neuromuscular training) to help them prepare for the demands of competitive sport participation, and youth who specialize in a single sport should plan periods of isolated and focused integrative neuromuscular training to enhance diverse motor skill development and reduce injury risk factors.

Strength of recommendation taxonomy sort: B.

Keywords: athletic performance; injury prevention; neuromuscular training; youth sports.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Athletes*
  • Athletic Injuries / etiology
  • Athletic Injuries / prevention & control*
  • Athletic Performance
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Competitive Behavior
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorders / etiology
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Motor Skills
  • Physical Education and Training* / methods
  • Risk Factors
  • Sports*
  • Stress, Psychological