Early Sport-Specialization Leads to Higher Injury Risk

Not long ago, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) undertook a study to determine the impact of early-sport specialization on injury rates among high school athletes.
While there are a few minor flaws in the study, which I’ll address momentarily, the study sheds a fairly strong negative light on early sport-specialization as it relates to injuries to high school athletes.
The study can be found here:
There are 2 minor flaws in the study.
The first is that it excludes lacrosse and field hockey, which are not offered at the high schools studied (nor in Wisconsin, the state site of the study.) This may be statistically significant because field hockey tends to have a high rate of early specialization and lacrosse players tend to suffer a considerable number of non-catastrophic injuries, including concussions.
The second is that the study relies heavily on self-reporting and the completion of a questionnaire by the athletes participating. While this is not inherently a reason to discount the study by any means, it may slightly skew the results for lack of independent or empirical observation of the athletes.
All that said, it is an excellent study with some shocking results.

Here are 4 important take-aways:

1. Children who specialize (i.e., surrender all other sports in favor of playing only one) in one sport from a young age have significantly higher risk of injury – nearly double the risk, based on reporting.
2. Girls are more likely to specialize in one sport than boys (nearly 50% more likely.)
3. Soccer has the highest rate of specialization at 47%, followed by volleyball at 43%. Both of these sports have inordinately high injury rates, especially for girls.
4. “In addition, specialized athletes were twice as likely to sustain a gradual onset/repetitive-use injury than athletes who did not specialize, and those who specialized were more likely to sustain an injury even when controlling for gender, grade, previous injury status and sport.” Read that twice.We’re talking about repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome in office workers. Except these are children!
With the seemingly complete takeover of sports by organized youth sports, travel and competitive showcase sports organizations, these take-aways are alarming and should be a clarion call to parents and coaches to institute change in the way youth sports are organized, marketed and managed in the US.
However, once again, money talks. There are billions of dollars being spent in youth sports, often in the hopes of enhancing the child’s potential to receive a college scholarship in relation to the ability to play a sport. When we consider that, according to the NCAA, about 2% of all high school athletes will receive a college scholarship to play a sport¹, youth sports organizations could well be accused of fraudulent subliminal marketing.
By the way, the average value of those scholarships received by the elite few? Approximately $11,000 a year. ¹
The Long-Term Athletic Development Model (LTAD) is a model designed to improve overall athletic ability, counter injury risk among athletes who do specialize and help young athletes grow and discover the sports that make them happy, fulfilled and competitively satisfied. This is counter to the perversely intuitive concept of training a child in one sport from an early age so that he or she will be more acutely skilled than peer athletes and have a better chance of succeeding in the competitive and scholarship “marketplace.”
LTAD views athletic development as a broad-based set of skills which can then be applied in as narrow a setting as desired to create a sport-based outcome. This can be repeated in a variety of sports, should the athlete so desire.
In other words, develop the athletic skill-set so the athlete can use those skills to be a player in any sport they choose! Here’s a visual on what the model looks like:
IYCA-LTAD-SPG-Pyramid-of-Performance-V11
The International Youth Conditioning Association has created a great course to help Strength, Fitness and Sports Coaches become familiar with the LTAD and how to apply it’s principles to help athletes get better, be happier and play longer. You can find it right here:
Children begin playing a sport because it’s fun and, often, because their friends are playing it. Early-specialization can be just as detrimental to a child’s desire to play a sport as repetitive tasks and boring work routine can be for an adult’s desire to excel at work. When we add to that the truth about early sport-specialization and injuries, it becomes nearly impossible to find a positive argument in favor of sport-specialization.
So let’s focus on Long-Term Athletic Development and put the fun back in kid’s sports. We’re likely to end up putting our kids back in more sports and the fun back in our kids, too!
1. https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Recruiting%20Fact%20Sheet%20WEB.pdf
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