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The Case Against Early Sports Specialization

Dr. Mark Cullen, Wentworth Health Partners Seacoast Orthopedics & Sports Medicine 

Youth sports participation has been exploding.  An estimated 60 million children aged 6-18 participate in some form of recreational or organized athletics.  Youth sports in the US today have changed over the last 20 years.  It has expanded from a community-based activity into a well-organized, adult-driven, competitive league. Practice and game schedules for families with multiple children can be overwhelming. Unstructured free play outside is a relic of the past.

Youth sport participation patterns have drastically changed over the past two decades. The emphasis now is on skill development, winning, and the pursuit of elite status (college scholarship).  This goal has led to the development of the travel sports and a sports tournament industry.  Increasingly, young individuals are specializing in a single sport well before high school.  Sports specialization occurs when a young athlete chooses to participate in one sport all year round to master the skillset for that sport to reach an elite level.  Evidence continues to mount on the detrimental effects of this trend on immature athletes.

Sports participation offers multiple benefits to children, but there is growing concern that early sports specialization leads to injuries and adverse social effects. The athlete sometimes drives early sports specialization, but their parents and coaches often encourage it.  While there are exceptions to the rules like Tiger Woods, most elite athletes did not concentrate on one sport as adolescents.  Steph Curry, Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, and multiple other pro athletes attribute much of their success to playing numerous sports and waiting until high school to focus on one sport.   Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, many parents and coaches think sports specialization is the best way to achieve athletic success and college scholarships.  It doesn’t matter how good an athlete is at a sport at the age of 10. Playing on a travel team or an all-star team may be fun, but there is no direct relationship between skill at that age and success in that sport later in life.  It is challenging enough for most athletes to play in high school, let alone have the opportunity to play in college. Many athletes choose to specialize in a single sport before they have had a chance to figure which sport is best for them. 

In the last five years, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the Academy of Pediatrics, and the International Olympic Committee have published research supporting the position that children should sample multiple sports rather than picking one too early.  They have found specializing in one sport and only one sport can increase the risk of overuse injuries and raise the potential for burnout. It also limits their exposure to diverse experiences that can benefit them as they develop as athletes and adults.  This may limit opportunities for interpersonal growth, behavioral development, and gradual independence. The most crucial argument against early sports specialization is that it is not fun.  The average child spends three years playing a sport and quits by age 11.  The primary reason kids are quitting sports is because they are not having fun playing them anymore.


1. It's what top athletes do (88% of Division I NCAA athletes played multiple sports as kids). 

2. Fewer serious injuries (athletes who play multiple sports have an average of 22% less sports injuries)

3. Fewer regrets (43% of NCAA players wish they'd spent more time in other sports growing up)

4. Less burnout (studies find that high specialization at a young age carries an increased risk of:

- Stress and anxiety

- Social isolation

- Burnout, and ultimately leaving the sport earlier







Physical Activity Skills

Peer Socialization


As many as 70% discontinue playing organized sports by age 13

At least 50% of athletic injuries are related to overuse

Only 1% of high school athletes will receive scholarships

Between 3 and 11% of high school athletes compete at the college level

Between only .03 and .5% of high school athletes reach professional level sports

Early sports specialization has been identified as damaging to the physical and mental health of young athletes.  The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine consensus statement developed recommendations to address the risks of early specialization.  These include:

  1. Avoid over-scheduling and excessive time commitments.
  2. Monitor for sports burnout.
  3. Emphasize skill development and fun.
  4. Emphasize lifelong physical activity skills.

I remind parents regularly that the two main reasons kids play sports are having fun and being with their friends.  It is a valuable point to keep in mind every time you drive your child to a practice or a game.

About Dr. Cullen


Mark Cullen, MD is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and has completed advanced fellowship training in sports medicine and arthroscopic surgery. He has a passion for adolescent sports medicine. Before moving to New Hampshire in 2019, he was the team physician for numerous high schools and club sports teams throughout his career in Atlanta and Oregon. On the Seacoast, he works closely with high school athletic trainers, physical therapists, and coaches to care for athletes and prevent adolescent sports injuries. Having had four shoulder surgeries himself, he understands what an injury means to his patients and the time and dedication it takes to recover from surgery.

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