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Sport Specialization vs. Diversification

Back in Action! Many of our local children and young adults are getting back into their sports this summer.

  • The recent study indicates that about 56% of all American children are involved in some sort of organized sport activity.

  • Competitive travel teams and current culture in the US has made the majority of young athlete’s shift their focus from playing multiple sports to just focusing on one sport, or having sport specialization.

  • Sport diversification is when a young athlete plays multiple sports throughout the year.

  • Which is better from an experienced orthopedic physical therapist’s perspective, let’s discuss!

What is Sport Specialization?

  • Sports specialization is defined as “intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.”

  • This entails full time commitment into one sport, to develop and increase specific sport skills at a faster pace.

  • This knowledge of a certain singular sport, increases the child’s chances of performing better than their peers, with a larger likelihood of becoming a successful athlete later in life.

  • In order to develop skill to an elite level, children who specialize in one sport for the means of success often have a very high training volume year round which includes rigorous amounts of repetition.

  • Our youth are still growing during this time of sport specification. Growth plates in their bones are still open causing repetitive stress to a growth plate .

  • The bodies of developing children are constantly changing, growth cartilage is present at the growth plate as well as the musculotendinous insertion. Growth cartilage is known to be vulnerable to the stress of repeated microtraumas. Injuries like Osgood Schlatter’s Disease of the knee and “Little Leaguers Elbow” are just a few examples of overused injuries within youth athletes that can bring on significant discomfort. Another problem of specialization for younger children early in their development can be the potential mental fatigue a child can face. This can be due to the constant high demands for improvement, success or simply being too active. With this mental fatigue, a child may feel burned out and lose motivation to continue on with performing their sport. Now on to sport diversification!

What is Sport Diversification?

  • Sport Diversification is the school of thought that a child should be involved in as many different sports as they would like throughout their younger years.

  • In early development of their athletic prowess, children exposed to multiple sports allow them to have a higher drive for the gratification of the games themselves rather than a pure focus on training.

  • There is a belief that children who have diversity with the sports they participate in can have a potential physical and cognitive crossover effect between activities.

  • It’s that different sports require different movement patterns, which can allow for children to challenge their minds and brains to numerous unique stimuli that one specific sport simply cannot offer.

  • For example, the power developed from skating in hockey may be applied to increasing the force behind a kick of a soccer ball.

  • Additionally, having high eye tracking abilities from tennis may transfer into following the ball in baseball.

  • Lastly, when children participate in numerous different sports, it allows them to have multiple options to fall back on if they were to ever lose interest in one of the sports, thus improving their chances of continuing to play sports into adolescence.

It may seem tempting for both the young athletes and their parents alike to push the idea of sports specialization in order to achieve greatness, however it is shown that sports diversification as much more long term benefits and fewer negatives. Young athletes should highly consider sports diversification if they would like to participate in sports and have lower chances of injury, lower chances of losing overall interest, and have higher chances of developing multiple, last skills that specializing in one sport can’t contribute.


-The Aspen Institute, Project Play, 2016

-Difiori, J., Benjamin, H., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G., & Luke, A (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 24(1):3-20.

-Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257. doi:10.1177/1941738112464626.

-Oliver, JL, Lloyd, RS, and Meyers, RW. Training elite child athletes: Promoting welfare and well-being. Strength and Conditioning Journal 33(4): 73-79, 2011.

-Childhood Sports Participation and Adolescent Sport Profile

François Gallant, Jennifer L. O’Loughlin, Jennifer Brunet, Catherine M. Sabiston, Mathieu Bélanger

Pediatrics Nov 2017, e20171449; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-1449

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