Youth Sports Specialization: Beware These 4 Dangers!


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“My son wrestled since he was in grade school. Now he is in high school and so burnt out that he didn’t even go out for the team. ”

“My neighbor plays club basketball year round and is out indefinitely because of stress fractures in her lower legs…”

“All that I’ve ever played is soccer – now I’m not a starter so I’m going to quit. I think it is too late to start another sport now…”

Have you ever heard statements like these? I am sad to say that I hear them all too often. With the media screaming about the Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams of the world, many people are making the mistake of starting one sport at a young – make that very young – age and specializing in it. The lure of college scholarships has also convinced these people that specialization is the only way to become good at a sport.

Before someone decides to specialize, they should consider the dangers involved in participating in only one sport. Here are 4 Dangers of Specialization:

1. Overuse injuries: stressing the body in the same way over and over again for all or a great part of the year can lead to overuse injuries. Stress fractures, compartment syndrome and other conditions often result from a lack of diversity in athlete’s activities. It is better to challenge your body in different ways throughout the year to develop as an athlete. Different sports will put different stressors on your body leading to better overall athletic performance. Pediatricians across the country have called for children to participate in a variety of physical activities.

2. Burn out: Playing one sports day after day, week after week, year after year can lead to burn out at a fairly early age. Children are starting organized sports at younger and younger ages. Someone playing hockey starting at the age of four may become tired and bored with the sport by the time they reach middle or high school. Non – specialization provides breaks and other experiences to keep a primary sport interesting, challenging and fun.

3. The College scholarship illusion: As much as parents want their children to receive athletic scholarships, the truth is that a very small percentage of athletes actually attain this goal. A scholarship in itself should not be the driving force behind choosing to participate in only one sport. A person should not bank their health, happiness and future on the small chance of a “full ride. ” The majority of athletes will benefit more from a variety of athletic experiences even if no scholarship offer ever comes. Besides, most college recruiters are looking for the best all-around athletes. One of their first questions is often: “What else did you do besides playing (insert primary sport here)?” There is evidence to support this. For example, over 75% of the 2004 football recruiting class for the Wisconsin Badgers is listed as playing multiple sports in high school. Also, look at the draft picks each year in the NFL. The majority of those players did not specialize in one sport during their high school careers. How often have you heard this on draft day: “We are going to draft the best overall athlete that is available…” Playing more than one sport is the best way to develop into that overall athlete.

4. Not achieving your full athletic potential: While focusing on one sport will help you develop the necessary sport-specific skills, you will not develop other athletic skills that would transfer to your primary activity. Speed, balance, mental focus, jumping, twisting are all stressed differently in different sports. Everything you do to become a better athlete will also make you a better (insert sport here) player.

More and more research is showing that early specialization does not ensure athletic success. We hear about the few who do blossom from early specialization but what about the vast majority who don’t “make it big” in their chosen sport? How many athletes can you think of that have become successful by not specializing? How about Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrickson, John Elway, and Marion Jones to name just a few.

Sports should be encouraged from a young age. But, it is better to encourage participation in a variety of athletic activities to develop athletic skills that transfer across all sports. This will lessen the dangers mentioned in this article, lead to young athletes reaching their full athletic potential and, who knows, maybe bring that coveted college scholarship.

Copyright, Tim Kauppinen, 2005

This article is protected by copyright, 2005, Tim Kauppinen. All rights reserved.

Tim Alan Kauppinen, or Coach K, has over 20 years experience as an athlete and coach. He has worked with athletes of all ages and abiltities in track and field, football, speed training and strength and conditioning. This has given him the privilege and the opportunity to coach athletes who have become conference champions, state champions and Division I college players. Coach K publishes a free daily fitness email with current tips on getting stronger, faster and in the best shape of your life. To sign up for this no cost service, visit Coach K's website at


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