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Sports Specialization vs. Sports Diversification in the Youth Population

Youth sports culture has significantly changed over the years evolving from child-driven recreational involvement to highly structured adult-driven participation. As a result, the age when athletes begin to specialize for a sport is younger than ever before. Let’s take a look at what the evidence says is best for the athletic development of our youth in order to help guide your decision with your children or players.

First off, let’s discuss the difference between sports specialization compared to sport diversification for athletic development.

Sport specialization:

  • Sport-specific training for one sport that most likely consists of:
    • Year-round training and participation
    • Intense training specific for the one sport
    • Exclusion of other sports

Sport diversification:

  • Generalized training approach
    • Focuses on developing basic motor skills, common tactical strategies, non-specific physical training, and on the enjoyment of participation
    • Less structured
    • Multiple sports

Sport specialization does have potential benefits that include more experience for specific skills or training for a sport that can improve their level of achievement and develop more advanced skills.

However, let’s look at what the research says:

  • Similar level of enjoyment between the specialization and diversification
  • Greater potential consequences (physical, social, behavioral) when specializing too early
  • For most sports, specializing early in childhood is not necessary for development of higher sports performance as an adult
  • However, some artistic and acrobatic maneuvers are beneficial to develop earlier prior to puberty
    • Examples: gymnastics, diving, figure skating, etc.
  • Prior to puberty, the more activities athletes are involved in the less sport-specific training needed to acquire expertise in their sport later on

Now that we can see sport specialization is not always necessary for later skill and athletic development, let’s take a look at the potential benefits for sports diversification. These include:

  • Exposure to a variety of sports to help them grow physically, cognitively, and socially in a positive environment
  • Intrinsic motivation through the enjoyment of sports
  • Reinforces emotional and self-regulating skills
  • Develops strong foundational skills that are needed in order to specialize successfully later on

Below you will find the specifics on the potential consequences and guidelines to prevent the consequences for sport specialization.

To summarize, sport specialization should be delayed until late adolescence while focusing on diversifying activities to allow for proper development in our youth and minimize the risks for adverse consequences.  Early diversification and later specialization may lead to higher chances of accomplishing athletic goals, fewer injuries, as well as greater participation with sport and physical fitness throughout their lifetime.

[How to Prevent Consequences from Sports Specialization Handout]

[Potential Consequences from Sports Specialization Handout]

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