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Should My Child Specialize in One Sport?

Bradford Strand, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences, NDSU

Many parents and guardians question whether their child or children should specialize in one sport (sport specialization) or participate in multiple sports (sports diversification). This is an important question and has great impact on families and family dynamics.

Today’s World of Youth Sports
In today’s world of youth sports, the pressure to be an elite player in a particular sport is enticing, and many young athletes are beginning to focus on only one sport at a young age in hopes of future success (for example, college scholarships). In fact, many parents are forcing their children to specialize at a young age. Gone are the times of just “playing in the backyard.”

Today, young athletes often go from organized play to individual training sessions to travel leagues to the school for practice and back to some form of league play. The repetitive amount of psychological and physical stress on the athletes often results in injury, burnout and outright quitting the sport.

Concerns About Sport Specialization
Overuse injuries as a result of overtraining account for 50 percent of all injuries in middle and high school athletes. Psychological problems that occur during specialization include loss of interest, decreased focus and elevated depression caused by the stress that comes with the day-to-day commitment. Sport specialization requires year-round dedication with a huge time commitment to that one sport.

Sport psychologists have determined that a lack of fun and enjoyment is the No. 1 reason why most youth leave organized sport. The time demand of sport specialization requires more and more practice and games, with less and less time for family, friends and freedom outside of sports. Playing the same sport every day for long periods of time, no matter how much one loves it, is a recipe for mental fatigue and burnout.

Future Success
Many parents and players believe that early sport specialization leads to a college athletic scholarship. In reality, many college coaches prefer to recruit multisport athletes. One reason why multisport athletes are successful is the variety of experiences they have been exposed to in all the various athletic events in which they participated. The different types of equipment, skills, rules and approaches of each game make each sport uniquely fun in developing better, all-around athletes.

In fairness, however, one must consider the amount of time spent (training volume) in sport specialization or sport diversification. An athlete playing one sport might practice two hours a day, while an athlete playing two sports in a season might practice up to four hours a day. In this case, arguing that sport diversification is any better than sport specialization in terms of time spent in training is difficult, and, in fact, it actually might be worse.

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