Jan 29, 2015
Specialization Still Rising

By Abigail Funk

Many athletes still view sport specialization as the only way to keep up with their competitors, and many parents still think it’s the only way for their kids to land a college athletic scholarship–despite numerous studies and expert advice that declare otherwise.
The American College of Sports Medicine says that the number of personal trainers hired for young athletes has doubled in recent years. Take this indoor baseball and softball facility located in Shreveport, La., for example.

The Extra Innings facility includes batting cages, a pro shop, circuit training, hitting clinics, and coaching instruction. Since its opening two years ago, membership has grown by 33 percent.

“There also are a lot of high school kids who want to get professional help,” Assistant Manager Trey Poland told the Shreveport Times. “It’s like getting a tutor or learning to play the piano.”

But does the growing number of training facilities and personal trainers specializing in youth athletes promote sport specialization? What about the numerous summer leagues and travel teams?

Four starters on the top five teams in the Chicago Tribune‘s preseason girls’ basketball rankings underwent ACL surgery in the past year, and Tim Zasada, Head Coach at Thornton Fractional North High School in Calumet City, Ill., blames it on year-round participation.

“I think they play way too much basketball,” Zasada told the Tribune. “AAU has taken over. The combination of summer league games, AAU games and our regular season games is too much for a high school player. The amount of games an athlete incurs in a life span–starting in the seventh or eighth grade–takes its toll.”

Though it’s tennis-specific, a recent study from the Loyola University Health System supports Zasada’s claim. Researchers analyzed over 3,000 matches in United States Tennis Association junior competition, and found that players who specialized in tennis were more likely to withdraw from tournament play because of injuries.

Players in the study began playing at an average age of 6, competing at age 9, and specializing at age 10. The athletes practiced 16 to 20 hours per week, and 93 percent said they competed at least 10 months out of the year.

“Parents, coaches and players should exercise caution if there is a history of prior injury,” Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, MD, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “And parents should consider enrolling their children in multiple sports.”

Little League has taken a small step toward helping its youth pitchers avoid overuse injuries–a major concern when it comes to sport specialization. The organization’s international board of directors has changed the tournament pitching rules so that more days of rest are required between starts.

The old rule required two days of rest and one game before a pitcher who threw 66 or more pitches in a game could take the mound again. Now, that pitcher must take four days of rest. (The game in between has been eliminated.)

“A few years ago, scientific studies showed epidemic increases in youth pitching injuries and pointed to overuse as the primary factor,” James Andrews, MD, Chairman of the American Sports Medicine Institute and a member of the Little League board, told the Patriot News. “The current changes adopted by Little League should help further the ability of kids to enjoy and advance in baseball without serious overuse injuries.”

There are other signs, however, that some athletes, parents, and even coaches and athletic directors are backing away from the idea of sport specialization. This USA Today article highlights several NCAA Division I multi-sport athletes who had major success on both the gridiron and diamond this past year.

“It’s all about competing,” Stanford Head Baseball Coach Mark Marquess, who was a dual-sport athlete in college, told the USA Today. “That’s what separates these guys from other athletes. They bring a mental and physical toughness to both sports. I’m old school. I think there’s too much specialization in sports now. It’s so healthy to have these examples excelling in elite programs, and it could encourage a new wave of high school athletes.”

For more information on the subject, check out They Got Next an article our sister publication, Athletic Management, ran last fall. It details the efforts some coaches and athletic directors are making to encourage multi-sport participation, including handing out multi-sport participation awards and making multi-sport participation a key element of their philosophies.

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.


Very nice piece. I am glad to read something that is on target and greatly needed. The European model of training with regard to gender specific training ages and windows has been ignored in the US, which leads me to believe that many athletes fall by the wayside (hence our Olympic medal to population count when compared to the rest of the world). Coaches and parents have become far too focused about the “All Tournament Team” when kids should be learning basic movement patterns and enjoying sport/activity.

Thank you for your efforts,
– Todd Brown

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