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Sport Specialization: More Benefit or Risk?

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 A current hot topic in athletics is sport specialization. According to the Journal of Athletic Training, sport specialization is defined as a young athlete who chooses one sport, ceases all other sporting activity aside from their primary sport, and plays or trains for the sport greater than eight months per year. While we know sport specialization is increasing, the question becomes, "Why are young athletes choosing to play just one sport?"

Some sport specialization is due to the athlete's preference for playing one sport, but there are other factors involved. One reason that athletes specialize is the perception that it will impact their career trajectory. Associated with this is the opportunity for athletic scholarships for higher education, which can result in pressure to specialize from the student's parents/family or internally from the athlete themselves.

Sports medicine professionals and collegiate coaches generally recommend against early sport specialization for young athletes. One factor is the potential for physical injuries. Research studies show that the rate of injury in sports specialty is more than double that of multi-sport athletes. Studies also show that children who engage in a variety of sports actually develop better motor control and coordination.

Sports specialization can affect athletic identity, resulting in a drive for perfectionism and cause excessive psychological stress. These effects can lead to a cascade of issues like athlete burnout, chronic stress syndromes, and early dropout of all sports.

While research remains ongoing, professional organizations have made recommendations to guide young athletes and their parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Athletic Training Association both recommend taking three non-consecutive months, in one-month intervals, off each year.

They also recommend one to two days off each week to allow the young athlete's body to rest and recover.

Although there is no definitive evidence of an age at which specialization is recommended, both AAP and NATA recommend waiting until late adolescence (age 18-21) so that the athlete would be better equipped to navigate through any potentially negative effects of sport specialization.

- Summary from an article submitted by Ken Jenkins, PTA, ATC/L Carle McLean County Orthopedics, Therapy Services
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