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A 'hot topic': The pros and cons of sports specialization, and the right age to start

Studies show that young athletes who specialize in one sport, particularly those younger than 12 years old, are at a greater risk of injury than multi-sport athletes.
Posted at 4:58 PM, May 07, 2024

APPLETON (NBC 26) — It's one of the hottest topics in youth sports: specialization. Athletes who focus on one sport, versus athletes who play multiple.

There are pros.

“Of course they’re going to have that skill development and that competitive edge," Chris Weister, the Fitness Director at Blaze Sports and Fitness in Appleton, said. "And there’s also this piece of: they’re passionate about something. So when they dive into it, there’s this enjoyment.”

And there are cons.

“They can maybe be a little less rounded as an athlete because they weren’t exposed to those other sports," Weister said. "And there’s also burnout. There’s a lot of pressure.”

Weister trains young athletes on both sides of the debate. She said sports specialization is a "hot topic" among those athletes and their parents.

Dr. Ryan Ziegler, an orthopedic surgeon with OSMS, said he's seen an increase in sports specialization in recent years.

From a medical standpoint, he said there are risks to playing just one sport, particularly for athletes younger than 12.

“Repetitive loading activities and intense training can lead to overuse injuries at an accelerated fashion," Dr. Ziegler said. "(That) can ultimately lead to decreased performance.”

Dr. Zeigler said specializing in one sport year-round means those athletes use the same parts of their body over and over again.

“Basketball players generally we see more knee problems," he said. "Baseball players generally more elbow and shoulder."

Weister and Dr. Ziegler both said that if an athlete does specialize, it's important to take time off. They believe that rest can lead to both physical and psychological benefits.

“If it’s over eight months of the year, that’s overuse of the muscle and joints and there’s a higher risk of injury," Weister said. "So we do recommend taking time off."

“Things like a month off periodically throughout the year in incremental fashion or taking one to two rest days throughout the week," Dr. Ziegler said. "The benefit can come from even just the rest alone, and the mental break they get.”

In a presentation at Blaze Sports and Fitness, Dr. Ziegler listed the pros of specialization as:

  • Accelerated sport-specific improvement.
  • Increased performance compared to peers.
  • Routine: same techniques, equipment, locations.
  • Routine: friends, relationships.

He listed the cons of specialization as:

  • Higher susceptibility to injury.
    • Early specialization is one of the strongest predictors of injury.
    • Specialized youth athletes have a 70% increased risk compared to multi-sport athletes.
    • 50% of injuries treated by pediatric sports medicine are overuse injuries.
  • Failure to develop alternative neuromuscular skills.
  • Lack of recovery from repetitive activities.
  • Psychological burnout.

For more perspective, NBC 26 talked with two of the area's top high school athletes.
Oshkosh North's Xzavion Mitchell said, that in seventh grade, his family urged him to focus on basketball.

“They saw something for basketball and the path that I had with basketball and they were like, alright, I think that it’s time for you to just focus on one sport," Mitchell added. "And I agreed because I was way better at basketball than I was at any other sport."

Mitchell focused on basketball year-round, playing in some of the countries to AAU circuits.

Earlier this spring, it paid off. He committed to play college ball at Big 12 powerhouse Iowa State.

"With me playing other sports I don’t think I could have been in this situation and had this opportunity,” Mitchell said.

“I just felt like focusing on one sport was going to benefit me the most and that’s what I did," he added. "And obviously I’m where I’m at right now.”

Last month, Neenah's Grant Dean committed to play college football at Wisconsin.

Dean is a three-sport athlete: a two-way star on the football field, the sixth man on Neenah's state-qualifying basketball team, and a state track champion in the 4x400-meter relay.

“When I was younger, I always played a lot of sports," Dean said. "I remember one time I was playing soccer and football in the same season."

“I think I've always been pushed toward playing more sports," he added. "(My parents) always wanted me to be more active.”

Dean said he believes playing multiple sports was instrumental in his development both on and off the field.

“I think it’s helped me in more ways than sports," he said. "I think it’s helped me in the classroom, just in life. Having the responsibility of having to get up every morning and working hard at what I do. I think it goes much further than sports.”

Ultimately, the experts say communication is paramount.

“I think the biggest thing is we’re trying to open up that communication between the athlete and the parent," Weister said. "I know the parents always want the best for their children, obviously. But sometimes just following their cues (can help).

"So if they seem over trained, or tired, or need a day off, that it’s okay if they step it back,” she added.

“If you get to a point at 12-16 years of age where things become more intense and more dedicated to a single sport, just ensure you’re incorporating the appropriate rest and recovery," Dr. Ziegler added.

While ultimately it is up to each family to decide what's best for them, Dr. Ziegler said from a medical standpoint he recommends against specialization, particularly for athletes younger than 12 years old.