Early Specialization in Youth Athletes May Lead to Injury

Early Specialization in Youth Athletes May Lead to Injury

Authored by Audrey on September 12, 2018

As parents, we want what is best for our kids, right? If your son or daughter’s dream is to play college sports, professional sports, or to be the best they can in their specific sport, their training needs to match that goal. They need training that is smart and safe in order to become elite athletes.

More and more I see kids playing a sport multiple times a day, every day of the week, with no real offseason. On top of that, they are also incorporating strength training as well as speed and agility. This idea that more training and playing year-round is going to help them become better athletes is not always true.

What is Smart Training?

We need to shift our thinking to smarter, more efficient training and recovery for young athletes. This is going to be the key to your child’s success. It’s time to let go of the idea that destroying them anytime they walk into a gym or onto the field is going to improve their performance. This also means letting go of the idea of early specialization. Early specialization is when your child is intensely training year round for one sport. Contrary to most beliefs, delaying this will reduce injury and lead to further success.

Take a Look at the Pros

Some of the best professional athletes were playing multiple sports growing up. They weren’t focused on just one sport. What does that tell us? It means that early specialization isn’t the recipe for success, and it won’t take that kind of approach for your child to become an elite athlete.

Cons of Early Specialization

Early specialization in a sport will most likely lead to injuries due to overuse, which will setback your child’s athletic career. This can cause psychological stress that leads to burnout and possibly even quitting the sport they loved.

Overuse injuries occur from doing repetitive movements and participating in too much activity too quickly. Overuse injuries unique to young athletes include apophyseal injuries (inflammation at the site of a major tendinous insertion onto a growing bony prominence) and physical (growth plate) stress injuries.

According to a study done in 2017 on the association of sports specialization and training volume with injury history in youth (where over 2 thousand kids ages 12-18 were questioned) recommends playing in a specific sport less than eight months out of the year and limiting participation to fewer hours per week than the child’s age.

So What’s Best for Young Athletes?

Having your child play in a variety of sports is recommended in order to develop the diverse skills they need. We need to educate parents and coaches about the risks of overuse injuries. Training needs to be foundational. Young kids working on sport specific training such as speed and agility work, ladder drills, etc. does not lead to better performance.

Youth athletes working on speed and agility will eventually plateau and not improve without first building a foundation of strength. You must be able to generate high amounts of force against an external load to be fast. The stronger you are, the more force that will be applied. This will improve their acceleration, speed, and agility.

Here’s the Key

Becoming stronger is the key factor in building a foundation and improving your power, speed, and agility. However, adding weight too quickly while neglecting form and technique will lead to plateaus and even worse, injury. Youth athletes should be developing proper movement patterns and motor control. Remember, the quality of training is highly favored over quantity. A well-supervised program will lead youth athletes to success.

Also, making sure that your child is getting adequate time between practices and training, quality sleep, and sufficient hydration are all equally important. Dehydration leads to poorer cognitive function and motor skills that lead to poor training and sports performance.

Physical, cognitive, and social maturity, as well as proprioception, play key roles to determine when it is a good time to start strength training.

What’s the Ultimate Goal?

The goal is to train your child for the longevity of their athletic career and their life. The chances of your child playing professionally, unfortunately, are slim. To put this into perspective, there are 8 million kids playing youth sports while less than 500 thousand are going to play for college. There is only a little over one percent that play professionally in basketball, football, and soccer. Nine percent end up making it in baseball, and six point four percent make it in hockey. So let’s not hurt them in pursuit of a dream that may or may not come true. We should be more focused on long-term health and development.

Tim Perry
Fitness Coach
Jack City Fitness