Soccer player

Considering having your young athlete join both the school team and a club team of the same sport? Perhaps your child loves a particular sport and can’t get enough of it. Or maybe you’re hoping your child will play in college or even professionally.

Currently, about half of athletes 18 or under participate on both club teams and school-based teams. This means they train year-round in one sport.

It’s a conundrum parents often face, especially for younger kids. They see their child excel in a sport and want to encourage it. But how much is too much?

As it turns out, youth sports researchers have learned quite a bit about that very question. UPMC Sports Medicine athletic trainer Tony Turchetta, MEd, LAT, ATC, weighs in.

What Does It Mean to Specialize in One Sport?

There isn’t one perfect definition of sports specialization. But the 3-point Jayanthi scale is what researchers tend to use. (The scale’s name comes from Neeru Jayanthi, a researcher and sports medicine doctor with Emory Healthcare.)

Based on how an athlete answers these three questions, they have a low, moderate, or high level of specialization.

  1. Have you quit all other sports to focus on one sport (or only ever played one sport)?
  2. Do you think of your primary sport as more important than other sports?
  3. Do you spend more than 8 months of the year training or participating in the primary sport?

Each “yes” is 1 point.

  • 0 – 1 points: low specialization
  • 2 points: moderate specialization
  • 3 points: high specialization

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What Does the Sports Medicine Community Say About Youth Sports Specialization?

Athletic trainers, sports medicine doctors, and other health care providers are growing increasingly concerned about youth specializing in a particular sport.

The two main reasons for their concern are injuries and burnout. Playing the same sport, with the same motions over and over again, can lead to injury in developing muscles. Kids are also more likely to get burned out on a sport that requires intense year-round focus.

Psychologically speaking, heavy training in one sport can also cut a child off from their peers and make them feel isolated. Sociologically speaking, it sets the bar for success fairly high. It’s harder for kids to compete if they’re from families that don’t have the resources for a club team.

Plus, early sport specialization isn’t linked to performance at national, Olympic, or professional levels. In fact, it may be detrimental.

That’s why the following organizations all have position statements that discourage specialization in young athletes:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (exceptions: diving, figure skating, gymnastics)
  • American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (exceptions: diving, figure skating, gymnastics, swimming)
  • American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (exceptions: figure skating, gymnastics)
  • National Athletic Trainers Association
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association

What Kinds of Injuries Happen When Kids Specialize Too Young?

Some of the sports linked most closely with specialization injuries are baseball/softball, volleyball, and soccer. These sports in particular have a lot of repetitive motions that sometimes lead to overuse injuries.

One study looked at more than 1,500 female high school athletes. It found that the athletes who participated in club teams and were more specialized were more likely to have lower extremity injuries.

Another study found that athletes ages 13 to 18 who trained in one sport were more likely to have:

  • A history of knee injuries
  • Overuse knee injuries
  • Hip injuries

Shoulder and elbow injuries from pitching are also common.

One study compared adolescent pitchers who had sustained at least one injury to adolescent pitchers who had never been injured. The injured group had pitched significantly more months and games per year. The injured group had also pitched more innings per game and threw more warm-up pitches before a game.

Remember that specializing at an early age won’t increase your child’s chances of playing in college or professionally. If anything, it will decrease the odds.

Instead of playing one sport year-round, encourage your child to try a variety of sports. This approach can help them grow and develop in a more balanced way. They may enjoy it more, too.

Athletic Training at UPMC Sports Medicine

UPMC Sports Medicine has the expertise to help your child prevent and recover from injury, improve athletic performance, and find a healthy balance of sport participation. Our certified athletic trainers are on the sidelines of 100+ schools throughout Pennsylvania caring for student-athletes at practices, games, and events.

Tony Turchetta, MEd, LAT, ATC, joined UPMC Sports Medicine and Mt. Lebanon High School in 2020. He earned his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology-athletic training at Penn State and a master’s in physical education from Old Dominion University. Tony has spent time as an intern for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hershey High School, and Great Bridge High School in Virginia. In his free time, he enjoys running, hiking, climbing, and staying active.

To learn more about sports specialization or athletic training at UPMC Sports Medicine, please call 1-855-937-7678 or visit our website.

Jayanthi NA., Post EG., Laury TC., Fabricant PD. Health consequences of youth sport specialization. Journal of Athletic Training. 2019; 54(10): 1040-1049. Link.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.