By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • Sport specialization by adolescent and early teenage athletes is associated with a relatively high injury risk
  • One study of Division 1 athletes showed that only about 17% of athletes were “highly specialized” when they were in 9th grade, with about 41% “highly specialized” by 12th
  • Only a small number of the athletes felt that they were pressured by their parents to specialize

Young athletes, and high school aged athletes in particular feel a lot of pressure to specialize in one sport. The thought is that by specialization you have a better chance of playing in college or in the pros compared to those who don’t specialize. But is this actually true?

Here’s an interesting study that took a look at this question. It’s titled “High School Sport Specialization Patterns of Current Division 1 Athletes” and published in the journal Sports Health. The authors used a survey of current athletes at the University of Wisconsin- Madison to assess how specialized these high level collegians were in high school.

Three hundred forty three athletes participated, representing 9 sports at the university. They found that sport specialization increased throughout high school, with about 17% “highly specialized” as 9thgraders and about 41% highly specialized by 12th grade.

Specialization was more common in individual sports (such as tennis, swimming, golf, etc.) and specialization was much less common for football athletes. The most common reason the athletes gave for specialization was simply because they enjoyed that sport the most, and the second most common reason was the opportunity to earn a college scholarship. Only 10% cited parental pressure as the reason for specialization.

Whenever possible, I encourage my young athletic patients to participate in multiple sports. By the time they get to me it means they’ve already had an injury and I’m trying to reduce their chance of having another one. There’s ample scientific evidence that sport specialization is a key factor in negative outcomes such as injuries, psychological burnout, and poor body movement patterns. And on the other end we have plenty of evidence that participating in several physical activities can have real benefits (except when you play multiple sports at the same time!).

Overall I saw a lot to be encouraged by this study, at least if you happen to be an SideLineSportsDocathlete in Wisconsin! It’s believed by many that early sport specialization is driven by parental pressure but in this survey only a small percentage of the athletes said they were highly influenced by their parents. Most of the time the focus towards a single sport was driven by the athlete’s enjoyment of the sport. Most athletes who are talented enough to be recruited to play a Division 1 sport will eventually specialize in their sport, but at least for this group of athletes it didn’t appear that early specialization was necessary to become a Division 1 athlete.