Should youth athletes specialize in one sport?

By Simi Bleznak

Ten thousand hours of practice “is the magic number of greatness,” author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Popular wisdom says that practice makes perfect, especially in a society where everyone is competing to be the best.
But experts say focusing on one sport can have detrimental physical and mental effects on the well-being of youth athletes.

In recent years, the number of youth athletes concentrating on one sport has surged, according to a study published in Sports Health.

The rise in youth specialization is a result of, among other things, parental pressure and unrealistic college expectations, said Kerrie Snead, athletic trainer at the Baldwin School. Snead has worked with middle school, high school, and college athletes and stressed the importance of cross-training, or participating in multiple sports, as it facilitates the utilization of different muscle groups.

Working with athletes on a daily basis, Snead has observed the kinds of injuries that can result from specialization. The most common include overuse injuries, like tendinitis, and injuries to the growth plate.

Concentrating on one sport can also have a mental effect on athletes, including decreased motivation, lack of enjoyment, burnout, and stress, said sports psychologist Amy Gross. In order to avoid these outcomes, Gross suggests incorporating enjoyment into the sport, which can prevent burnout and increase motivation.

Early specialization, she added, stresses “quantity over quality” and can require too much of a time commitment.
And if the goal is success in college and beyond, Gross said, most collegiate athletes come from multi-sport backgrounds.

Baldwin senior Jennifer Dietrich said playing multiple sports as a child helped her become a track standout. Photo by Simi Bleznak.

Jennifer Dietrich, a student-athlete and senior at the Baldwin School, fits this category. She will be continuing her track career at Bucknell University this fall but grew up participating in many sports, including gymnastics, softball, soccer, and basketball. Dietrich attributes her successes in track, including first-place finishes at the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association championships over the last few years, to the motivation and confidence she has gained from participating in other sports.

“The little successes in other sports, like scoring a penalty kick or dribbling up the field, give me motivation that I then take to track,” Dietrich said.

She also noted that participating in multiple sports has allowed her to make friends and acquire leadership skills.
So what is some advice for youth athletes?

“Remember what is driving you to play the sport. Remember the purpose,” said Gross, the sports psychologist.

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