Young Athletes and Specialization: What Parents Should Know

by Samantha Eakes, DPT

Chances are, you already know that youth participation in sports has many benefits, including providing consistent exercise, promoting overall health, teaching teamwork, leadership, discipline, self-esteem, peer socialization, and an opportunity for fun.  Despite these many benefits, the trend towards early single-sport specialization of youth athletes is increasing rapidly.  Studies show early single-sport specialization is associated with increased overuse injuries, burnout, and quitting sports at a young age–while not necessarily providing greater skill development when compared with multi-sport athletes. Now with the school year and fall sports cranking up, here are a few things to be aware of with your young athlete:

Signs of burnout/overtraining:

  • lingering muscle soreness for several days
  • decreased performance
  • lack of desire to train
  • agitated behavior
  • sleep disturbances
  • lack of energy

Decrease early sports specialization and encourage multi-sport participation

  • An adolescent athlete should have 2-3 non-consecutive months off from their sport
  • Multi-sport participation:
    • decreases overuse injuries and burnout.
    • can improve an athlete’s overall muscle development and potentially improve overall athleticism.
    • Increase likeliness of continuing participation in a given sport and tend to be more active later in life
  • There is no magic age for when it is okay for an athlete to specialize; it depends on overall development and maturity. However, in general, an athlete should wait until high school to specialize in one sport
  • Strength training is okay and actually encouraged for adolescent athletes. Pre-season strength and conditioning should be included to prepare an athlete for the season and help prevent injury. Younger or immature athletes require more supervision to encourage safety and decrease chance for injury
  • Unstructured play is good: it associates sports with enjoyment and fun. A child athlete should be having fun and enjoying sports participation
  • Core strengthening is key for any athlete.

Key Statistics

  • A study that looked at elite athletes of basketball, netball, and field hockey found that the more sports and activities athletes participated in prior to the age of 12, the less sport-specific practice it took to acquire expertise in their chosen sport (A)
  • up to 70% of youth athletes quit organized sports by the age of 13
  • It is found that up to 50% of youth injuries are overuse injuries. It is also found that more than half of youth sports injuries are preventable

Exercise Guidelines

  • Children (4-10) and adolescents (11-17):
    • Children and adolescents should participate in 60 minutes of activity every day. The activity should vary, should be age appropriate, and should be enjoyable.
  • Adults (18-64)
    • Adults should partake in moderate intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes on most (preferably all) days of the week. 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

Remember: if your athlete is having persistent pain, this is not normal and treatment should be sought. If you think your athlete may need physical therapy or supplemental strengthening (with or without pain) this is something with which we can help. Just call our office at 815-758-5508 to set up a free consult.



  • Jayanthi N et al. Sports Specialization in young Athletes. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257.
  • McLeod T et al. National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: prevention of Pediatric Overuse Injuries. Journal of Athletic Training. 2011; 46(2):206-20.
  • Brenner JS. Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2016;138(3).
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