How Soon is Too Soon to Specialize?

Across the country, athletes are starting to specialize in a chosen sport at younger and younger ages. But how young is too young?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a clinical report published in the Pediatrics journal in 2016 examining this topic. The short answer: Athletes should not specialize in a single sport at least until they reach puberty, and preferably not until later in adolescence (approximately 15-16 years of age).

Joel S. Brenner, MD, MPH, FAAP and chair of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, was the lead author of the report, which culled information from numerous studies to help advise pediatricians on what recommendations that should be giving to young athletes and their parents.

The biggest risks associated with early specialization include intense training leading to overuse injuries; being socially isolated from their peers; burnout, anxiety and depression; and missing out on exposure to other sports that they may find more enjoyable and rewarding.

The report cites nine pieces of advice for pediatricians to offer to the athletes, parents and coaches:

  1. The primary focus for young athletes should be on having fun.
  2. Participate in multiple sports until at least puberty.
  3. Specializing in a single sport later leads to a higher chance of accomplishing athletic goals.
  4. Early diversification and later specialization leads to greater chance of lifetime sports involvement, lifetime physical fitness and possibly elite participation.
  5. If a young athlete does decide to specialize, it’s important for them to discuss their goals to determine if they are appropriate and realistic.
  6. It’s important for parents to closely monitor their child’s training and coaching environment.
  7. Young athletes should have at least three months off from their primary sport during the year, in increments of at least one month, to allow for physical and psychological recovery.
  8. Young athletes should have at least 1-2 days off per week from their primary sport.
  9. Athletes pursuing intensive training should be closely monitored for physical, psychological growth and maturation.

It might be tempting to focus your child’s attention on one specific sport, but resist the urge to specialize too soon. Providing a fun, safe, multi-sport environment for your child early on is paramount; should your child fall in love with one specific sport, there’s always the opportunity for them to focus on it when they’re older.