As children, we run across our streets, roll down grassy hills, or climb that tree in the front yard without fear or embarrassment. These activities are coupled with scent of spring grass, dizzying sensations, and if we’re so lucky fond memories long into the future. One unsuspecting day, this changes. You show potential and commit to a more serious training regiment, or you trickle off from a physical lifestyle and gravitate towards other less dynamic interests.
Those showing potential may be led to premature intense training to optimize their ability. Although at some point this may be required to reach athletic potential, it’s often done prematurely to the detriment of unsuspecting youth.
Sports specializing can be defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport to the exclusion of other sports. This definition may be debated as “intense” is varied, but it serves as a negative source during one’s formative years.
Here are the reasons why specialization is detrimental, and diversification will maximize one’s athletic career
Youth Specialization for Performance
Athletes tend to perform better when delaying specialization. This may be due to increased injury rates, burnout, or dropping out altogether for those specializing early.
A 2019 study found that the best young distance runners in the United States (U16 and 18) ran their PR before the age of 20. Athletes who were successful in their mid-teenage years through adulthood were “rare exceptions”.
A 2018 study looked at elite track athletes aged 12-14 years old’s in the United Kingdom between 2005 and 2015. Under 15% of these athletes, male and female, held their top-ranked status by the age of 20. Further, only 40% of these elite athletes held their ranking a few years later.
One may question, won’t my child be behind in their given sport if they don’t specialize? It appears developing a child’s movement experience by exposing them to a variety of sports increases their ability to pick up skills later in life. During a time of rapid growth, diversification of movement will optimize a child’s ability to understand movement going forward. It’s as if they are developing their foundation, and with these more specific skills are more accessible in later years. Youths who diversify their sports enhances their ability to obtain expertise later. This is particularly significant in distance runners, whose sport is one-dimensional compared to other unpredictable, varied sports.
Men and women tend to peak at the ages of 25-27 years old for middle-distance running, while marathoners peak around 28-29 years. Adolescents have plenty of time to maximize their athletic potential.
Youth Specialization for Health and Longevity
Adolescents with heavier workloads in their early teenage years tend to suffer more injury. Less time on the field equates to less training and impaired performance.
A 2014 study looked at the training profiles of Australian track runners. They found that greater training loads in early teenage years (13-14 years) correlated to injury. 17.3% of these athletes retired by 18 years due to injury. Persistent injury has been cited as one of the most common reasons for dropping out of sport altogether.
Those who specialize are at a higher risk for injury at a younger age, as well as in the future. For example, bone density declines during periods of rapid growth. During times of peak height velocity (Males: 13 years, Girls: 12 years), there is a delay in bone mineralization and overall bone strength which requires time to “catch up” to the rest of the body. This leaves a window of increased injury risk, particularly so with intense training.
Up to 80% of bone health can be attributed to genetics. That leaves roughly 20%, of which can make a significant difference. This is significant as distance running serves as a rather one-dimensional sport. Bones are best developed through multi-joint, high intensity, varied and dynamic movements (Ex. Soccer, Basketball, Weight- Lifting, etc). Placing unpredictable, intense loads onto the bone will optimize its structure for the future and serve as a potent source to reduce injuries. The time to do this is as children into our mid-late teenage years.
Youth Specialization for Happiness
Young athletes who specialize in a single sport have reported becoming consumed by training and feeling a sense of isolation. This can lead athletes to identify with their sport, whereas an eventual injury leads to a loss of identification crisis and send them into a tailspin. Pair this with an injured athlete no longer valued on a competitive team, it’s no wonder why chronic exposure to stressful situations often leads to anxiety and burnout.
This is far removed from the carefree days of children, only to be further influenced by well-intentioned coaches or parents encouraging premature intense training. Kids should enjoy practice rather than have it feel like a burden when fitting in with school and other life factors as they grow. The psychological aspect of training reflects in future success.
The majority of successful track athletes did not specialize until after 16, on average 17.7 years old. Growing bodies shouldn’t train like developed humans. Cause they aren’t developed humans and doing so may harm their growth. Your growing years may present an opportunity to optimize your human engine for many years to come. Use this time to upgrade to a larger, more efficient engine by exposing kids to diverse environments, which they will adapt to.
The most common path to health and success is going to be for those who diversify their sports and overall experiences at a young age. Not specializing until late adolescence. In doing so, this will be reflected in the decades to follow.
Thank you for taking the time to read, I hope you found this useful and thought-provoking. Questions or input on this blog? Shoot me a message!
Beck, B., & Drysdale, L. (2021). Risk factors, diagnosis and management of bone stress injuries in adolescent athletes: A narrative review. Sports, 9(4), 52. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9040052
Enoksen, E. (2011). Drop-Out Rate and Drop-Out Reasons among Promising Norwegian Track and Field Athletes: A 25 Years Study. Scandinavian Sport Studies Forum, 2, 19-43.
Tenforde, A. S., & Fredericson, M. (2022). Bone stress injuries: Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, Labella C. Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health. 2013 May;5(3):251-7. doi: 10.1177/1941738112464626. PMID: 24427397; PMCID: PMC3658407.