Early Single-Sport Specialization: A Survey of 3090 High School, Collegiate, and Professional Athletes

Orthop J Sports Med. 2017 Jul 28;5(7):2325967117703944. doi: 10.1177/2325967117703944. eCollection 2017 Jul.

Abstract

Background: Youth participation in organized sports in the United States is rising, with many athletes focusing on a single sport at an increasingly younger age.

Purpose: To retrospectively compare single-sport specialization in current high school (HS), collegiate, and professional athletes with regard to the rate and age of specialization, the number of months per year of single-sport training, and the athlete's perception of injury related to specialization.

Study design: Cross-sectional study; Level of evidence, 3.

Methods: A survey was distributed to HS, collegiate, and professional athletes prior to their yearly preparticipation physical examination. Athletes were asked whether they had chosen to specialize in only 1 sport, and data were then collected pertaining to this decision.

Results: A total of 3090 athletes completed the survey (503 HS, 856 collegiate, and 1731 professional athletes). A significantly greater percentage of current collegiate athletes specialized to play a single sport during their childhood/adolescence (45.2% of HS athletes, 67.7% of collegiate athletes, and 46.0% of professional athletes; P < .001). The age of single-sport specialization differed between groups and occurred at a mean age of 12.7 ± 2.4 (HS), 14.8 ± 2.5 (collegiate), and 14.1 ± 2.8 years (professional) (P < .001). Current HS (39.9%) and collegiate athletes (42.1%) recalled a statistically greater incidence of sport-related injury than current professional athletes (25.4%) (P < .001). The majority (61.7%) of professional athletes indicated that they believed specialization helps the athlete play at a higher level, compared with 79.7% of HS and 80.6% of collegiate athletes (P < .001). Notably, only 22.3% of professional athletes said they would want their own child to specialize to play only 1 sport during childhood/adolescence.

Conclusion: This study provides a foundation for understanding current trends in single-sport specialization in all athletic levels. Current HS athletes specialized, on average, 2 years earlier than current collegiate and professional athletes surveyed. These data challenge the notion that success at an elite level requires athletes to specialize in 1 sport at a very young age.

Keywords: injury; single sport; sports specialization; youth.