Sports Specialization and the Risk for Injury and Burnout

kids playing soccer

 Getty Images / FatCamera

When it comes to youth sports, specialization is becoming the norm. Although the reasons vary from family to family, the vast majority of parents feel that if their kids aren't playing the same sport year-round they will fall behind their peers and ultimately be cut from high school and travel teams. Other families opt for single-sport participation due to cost and time constraints. And still, others give in to pressures from coaches and club directors and encourage their kids to specialize at an early age.

Yet, whatever the motivating factor, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), along with some coaches and orthopedic specialists, advise against sports specialization—especially at a young age. Their fear is that when kids focus on a single sport without any breaks, they run the risk of detrimental physical and psychological effects. Likewise, young athletes who train extensively across multiple sports also are at risk for negative effects on the mind and body.

Why Kids Specialize in Sports

The youth sports culture has changed dramatically over the last few years. Not only are sports more competitive than they were years ago, but there is increased pressure to compete at high levels at a young age through travel teams and other competitive sports. The goal is to elevate a child's abilities while also attracting attention from national teams, youth Olympic teams, and even college coaches.

Additionally, parents often believe that in order to achieve elite-level status as an athlete, kids need to focus on a single sport. So, they pick the sport that seems to fit their child's skillset best and hone in on making their child into a superb athlete. What's more, there are still many coaches who demand that athletes in their programs specialize in a particular sport. So sports parents often succumb to the pressure for specialization or risk being kicked out of the club.

Overall, sports specialization is defined as playing a single sport with a concentrated focus on training and development in that sport only. In other words, sports specialization means a young athlete:

  • Participates in only one sport
  • Plays that sport for more than 8 months out of a year
  • Quits other sports in order to focus on just one

Risks Associated With Specialization

Research suggests that for most sports, young athletes who specialize too soon are at risk for physical, emotional, and social problems. For instance, young athletes often spend so much time training and playing sports that they may become socially isolated from their peers. They also may feel like they have little control over their lives. Consequently, they may struggle on many levels including both socially and emotionally.

Likewise, specialization can cause overuse injuries, which lead not only to a loss of playing time but intense physical pain. Sometimes overuse can even lead to career-ending injuries for young athletes. And the likelihood of an injury is significant. In fact, one study of high school athletes found an increased risk of injury when they trained more than 16 hours per week. And another study found that kids who specialize are 33% more likely to experience an injury than those who don't.

According to the AAP, specializing too early in a sport also can lead to burnout. In fact, in their youth sports recommendations they say that "in some kids, burnout manifests itself as a syndrome which includes emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment, and a devaluation of the sport. Signs and symptoms include muscle and joint pain, fatigue, elevated resting heart rate, decreased performance, lack of enthusiasm, and personality changes."

What Parents Should Do Instead

Ideally, intense training in one sport at the exclusion of all other sports should be delayed until late adolescence, or when your child is about 15 or 16 years old. But even then, if your child wants to play more than one sport and your wallet and calendar can accommodate it, you should allow it.

Even if your child has aspirations of playing in college someday, you should consider allowing them to play more than one sport. In fact, some college coaches actively look for multi-sport athletes during their recruitment processes. Playing different sports actually helps prevent some injuries especially if your young athlete plays sports that use different muscle groups. And multi-sport athletes typically are more successful. Here are some other things you should consider when it comes to sports specialization.

Allow Kids to Play a Variety of Sports

Research shows that children develop best when they play a variety of sports before they reach puberty. They also are less likely to experience burnout or drop out of the sport altogether.

Delay Specialization

The AAP recommends that kids wait until they are 15 or 16 years old before they specialize in a sport—and even then it's not a requirement if they want to continue playing multiple sports. Keep in mind that studies show that elite athletes that specialized later had more success while athletes who specialized early had shorter athletic careers.

Encourage Time Off

Ideally, your child should have about 1 to 2 days off per week from competitive sports, which includes downtime from practices, training, scrimmages, and games in order to recover both physically and psychologically. Likewise, kids need to be kids. So make sure they have plenty of opportunities to spend time with friends and pursue other interests.

Schedule Downtime

Most doctors, and even some coaches, recommend that kids have about 2 months, sometimes even 3 months, off from a sport every year. During this downtime, they can play another sport or simply enjoy being a kid. Of course, they should still be physically active, but a break from intense training is needed for every young person.

Focus on Fun and Skill Development

When playing a sport, make sure you help your child focus on having fun and getting better. Once a sport stops being fun, your child is at risk for burnout. Likewise, focusing on winning also can create unnecessary stress and anxiety. So make sure you focus on improving their skills, sportsmanship, and growing as a person rather than on winning.

Discuss Motivations for Specialization

Ask your child (and yourself) why you are so eager to pursue sport specialization. Is it because your child hopes to compete at the college level? If that's the case, you need to be realistic. Less than 10% of high school athletes go on to become collegiate athletes and only 1% receive an athletic scholarship. While you should never discourage them from pursuing their dreams, you also need to realize that they may not be able to play at the college level—even if they specialize in their sport.

A Word From Verywell

Early specialization is a challenging and frustrating concept. While you may realize that allowing your child to play a single sport year-round could be detrimental to their health and well-being, you also may be feeling pressure to make sure they don't fall behind others their age or that they're meeting the coach's guidelines. The best thing to do is to step back and think about your family's goals and priorities.

Together you can make a decision on how to address your child's interest and sports and still keep them physically and emotionally healthy in the process. For some kids, it makes sense to allow them to specialize in a sport later in adolescence and for other kids, it doesn't. If you're having trouble determining what's right for your child, talk to their pediatrician.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brenner JS. Sports specialization and intensive training in young athletes. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2148

Additional Reading