An Analysis of Sports Specialization in NCAA Division I Collegiate Athletics

Orthop J Sports Med. 2019 Jan 28;7(1):2325967118821179. doi: 10.1177/2325967118821179. eCollection 2019 Jan.


Background: Youth sports specialization has become more prevalent despite consequences such as increased injury rates and burnout. Young athletes, coaches, and parents continue to have misconceptions about the necessity of sports specialization, giving athletes the encouragement to focus on a single sport at a younger age.

Purpose: To characterize the motivations for specialization and determine when elite athletes in various individual and team sports made the decision to specialize.

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

Methods: A Likert-style survey was developed and distributed to athletes from two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I institutions. The survey's Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 6.3. Statistical analysis was performed via the Student t test, where a P value less than .05 was considered significant.

Results: A total of 303 athletes with a mean ± SD age of 19.9 ± 1.52 years across 19 sports were surveyed; 94.7% of specialized athletes had previously played another organized sport prior to college, and 45% of athletes had played multiple sports up to age 16 years. The mean age of specialization was 14.9 years, with a significant difference between athletes competing in team (15.5 years) and individual (14.0 years) sports (P = .008). Males in individual sports specialized earlier than those in team sports (P ≤ .001). Nearly one-fifth (17.4%) of athletes reported specializing at age 12 years or earlier. Personal interest, skill level, time constraints, and potential scholarships were the most important reasons for specialization overall. For individual sports, the motivations for specialization were similar, but collegiate (P < .001) or professional (P < .001) ambitions were significantly larger contributing factors.

Conclusion: Early sports specialization is uncommon among NCAA Division I athletes for most team sports, whereas individual sports tend to have athletes who specialize earlier and are more motivated by professional and collegiate goals. This study characterized the timing of specialization among elite athletes, providing a basis for understanding the motivations behind youth sports specialization. Physicians should be prepared to discuss the misconception that early sports specialization is necessary or common among most team-focused collegiate-level athletes. Knowing the motivations for sports specialization will guide clinicians in their discussions with youth athletes.

Keywords: collegiate athletics; sports specialization; youth sports.