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Sports specialization is putting children’s health at risk, trainers say

New recommendations of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association are intended to reduce the growing incidence of sports-related physical injuries among young people.

playing soccer
Currently, about 60 million American children and teens aged 6 to 18 participate in organized sports each year.
Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

Parents should delay letting their children specialize in a single sport for as long as possible, and when children do specialize, they should not be permitted to play that sport for more than eight months each year.

Those are two of the official recommendations regarding sports specialization released last week by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) — recommendations intended to reduce the growing incidence of sports-related physical injuries among young people.

Currently, about 60 million American children and teens aged 6 to 18 participate in organized sports each year, and slightly more than a quarter of them — about 16 million — are involved in only one sport, according to the National Council of Youth Sports.

As the NATA experts point out, sports specialization poses a serious health risk to young athletes. In a study published just a few weeks ago, researchers found that children and teenagers who focus on one sport tend to practice more frequently and intensely than their athletic peers who don’t specialize — a factor that puts them at increased risk of stress fractures, tendinitis, ACL tears and other injuries.

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“Studies show that young athletes often see specialization as a prerequisite to advancing — making the varsity team, earning a college scholarship or progression to the professional level,” says Tory Lindley, NATA’s president, in a released statement. “When athletes specialize too early, or engage in excessive play, they are increasing the probability of injury and reducing the chances of achieving their goals.”

“We want to help athletes and parents recognize health is a competitive advantage,” he adds.

Research has debunked the widely held belief that specializing in a sport early increases the chances a child will go on to be an elite athlete.

“A sobering truth is that the probability of a high school student athlete competing at the collegiate level and receiving any form of sports scholarship is about 2 percent,” points out Murphy Grant, chair of NATA’s Intercollegiate Council for Sports Medicine Council (ICSMC), in a released statement. “As youth athletes progress through their respective sports, the top priority should be their mental and physical health and well-being, which can be jeopardized through early youth sports specialization.”

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Here are NATA’s recommendations:

      • Delay specializing in a single sport for as long as possible: Sport specialization is often described as participating and/or training for a single sport year-round. Adolescent and young athletes should strive to participate, or sample, a variety of sports. This recommendation supports general physical fitness, athleticism and reduces injury risk in athletes.
      • One team at a time: Adolescent and young athletes should participate in one organized sport per season. Many adolescent and young athletes participate or train year-round in a single sport, while competing in other organized sports simultaneously. Total volume of organized sport participation per season is an important risk factor for injury.
      • Less than eight months per year: Adolescent and young athletes should not play a single sport more than eight months per year.
      • No more hours/week than age in years: Adolescent and young athletes should not participate in organized sport and/or activity more hours per week than their age (i.e., a 12-year-old athlete should not participate in more than 12 hours per week of organized sport).
      • Two days of rest per week: Adolescent and young athletes should have a minimum of two days off per week from organized training and competition. Athletes should not participate in other organized team sports, competitions and/or training on rest and recovery days.
      • Rest and recovery time from organized sport participation: Adolescent and young athletes should spend time away from organized sport and/or activity at the end of each competitive season. This allows for both physical and mental recovery, promotes health and well-being and minimizes injury risk and burnout/dropout.

These recommendations are not meant, of course, to discourage young people from getting plenty of physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that children and teens aged 6 through 17 get at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Parents should make sure, however, that their children are involved in all types of physical activity, not just training and playing for an organized sports team.

FMI: You can read the full statement from the NATA on its recommendations at the organization’s website.