We all know kids who specialize in a single sport. The advantages seem obvious. Putting in more time early and working harder than the competition leads to a better chance of success later, right? Even though that seems to make sense, early specialization may not be giving kids the advantages parents imagine. And it comes with risks.

The obvious advantage to early specialization is skill acquisition. Sure, skill acquisition is important, but when your 13 year old grows 2 inches in 2 months, that pitch he had honed just 2 months ago falls apart. He’s frustrated and not sure what’s happening. Add some testosterone and who knows, he may think, “this is a dumb sport” and quit altogether.

When kids focus on a specific skill, overall athletic development suffers. Young athletes who participate in many sports gain more athleticism in the form of strength, balance, speed, and agility. They give their bones, muscles, and tendons exposure to a wide variety of forces and if they feel frustrated with one sport, they can try another. Many kids get bored or frustrated easily and doing the same kick or throw over and over can take the fun out of any sport. Between feeling uncoordinated because of a growth spurt, achy because bones are still fusing, and crabby with emotions that are all over the map, some kids may decide they’d rather go hang out at the mall.

If your kid has natural athleticism and you see a career in sports for them, early specialization is still not the way to go. For one, it can lead to burn out and two, early specialization doesn’t mean better outcomes. In one international study, elite athletes played multiple sports during their developmental years (defined as 11 and younger) while near elite athletes specialized at a younger age. A study of Olympians came to the same conclusion: the USOC found in a survey of 2014 Olympians that, as they developed, the athletes averaged 3 sports per year from ages 10 – 14, and 2 sports per year from 15 – 18.

To achieve elite status, it’s best for an athlete to reach some level of physical maturity before specializing. But let’s be clear, very few of our kids will become Olympians or professional athletes. If we want our children to remain physically active, happy and healthy, we should consider introducing them to a variety of sports and physical activities. When they are physically and emotionally mature, kids can choose to specialize in a specific sport because they love it, or they can continue to play pick-up basketball or drop in hockey.

At some point, athletes who aspire to play a sport at collegiate or higher levels, specialization is critical. While the right time to specialize will vary from athlete to athlete and sport to sport, here are some guidelines:

  1. The general guideline for hours of practice per week on a specific sport is one hour per year of age. For example a 12 year old should spend no more than 12 hours a week on a certain sport.
  2. Experts recommend waiting until an athlete has reached skeletal maturity before specializing in one sport.
  3. Specialization should happen when the athlete chooses to do so, without external pressures.

No matter how you and your athlete proceed, a Physical Therapy Evaluation is a great investment. Injuries increase dramatically (15-50%) when young athletes do not have adequate fitness, flexibility and strength prior to skill training. A PT screen will highlight imbalances before they turn into problems and make sure your athlete is ready to pursue his or her sport/sports with maximum enjoyment and success.

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