Apr 28

Consequences of Early Specialization in Children and Youth Sports – Part 3A

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Experts have been discussing the topic of early specialization to a great extent lately because the consequences of this training approach are apparently very detrimental, according to their research. German-American developmental psychologist Erik Ericson (1902-1984) is best known for his theory on the psychological development of human beings, and coining the phrase ‘identity crisis.’ He advocates that children 6-12 years of age need to be exposed to a ‘smorgasbord’ of activities, rather than early specialization in one sport.

Early specialization is defined as “athletes limiting participation to a single sport, which they train for and compete in on a year-round basis” (Balyi, Way, & Higgs, 2013, pp. 51-52). Four parameters are generally applied to define early specialization:

  • Early start in a given sport
  • Early involvement in one sport as opposed to participating in several sports
  • Early involvement with focus on high intensity training
  • Early involvement in one competitive sport

Researchers have now divided sports into ‘early’ and ‘late’ specialization categories. Accordingly, ‘early specialization’ for future excellence is mostly essential in acrobatic and artistic sports such as diving, figure skating, and gymnastics because complex movement patterns and sport skills should be acquired before the onset of adolescent growth spurt (about 12 years of age for females – 14 years for males). Nevertheless, some negative consequences in these programs cannot be avoided, especially overuse injuries. ‘Late specialization’ refers to the belief that ‘early specialization’ is not needed, and applies to all other sports, including team, racket, combative, and gliding sports.

The Australian Institute of Sport actually recommends that ‘initial specialization’ for swimmers begins between ages 7 and 9 for girls, and ages 10-11 for boys; in-depth specialization between ages 12 and 14, and 13 and 15 respectively (Touretski, 1993, cited in I. Balyi, R. Way, & C. Higgs, 2013, p. 57). A great example of ‘late specialization’ is former Russian swimmer Alexander Popov. He is still widely considered to be the greatest sprint swimmer in history, winning gold in the 50m and 100m freestyle at the 1992  and 1996 Olympics, holding the world record in the 50m for eight years, and the 100m record for six years. In 2003, he won 50m and 100m Gold at the 2003 World Championships at age 31. Interestingly, he only began swimming at age 8 at the Children and Youth Sports School of Fakel Sports Complex in Lesnoy, and was afraid of water at that time but his father insisted that he took lessons. Popov did not train intensively and enter competition until age 16!

Negative Consequences of Early Specialization – One-dimensional Aspect

The focus on one particular sport develops the skills, coordination, and sport specific fitness for doing well in that sport in the short term, but limits or even prevents the development of other transferable sport skills, according to research. Multi-sport participation provides not only positive and social experiences but also Fun. I hate to be blunt, but “one-sport engagement creates “motor morons when attempting activities beyond the selected sport”, according to my extensive coaching experience (Schloder, 2018). Chris Schwarz, strength and conditioning coach of the NHL Ottawa Senators laments: “My players can’t run, jump, or throw – fundamental movement patterns, and I have to teach these now” (Hockey players who can’t catch, The Calgary Herald, B8, May 17, 2017). He calls it an “epidemic”, stating that athleticism is declining among today’s NHL players. According to Schwarz, “it’s starting early. Ask your kid if he or she can somersault, play catch with both hands, or run backward. Do those three things. I think most parents would be astonished that their kids can’t do it”, Schwarz told Postmedia’s Wayne Scanlan.

Numerous experts argue that specialization in one sport contributes to the “progressive loss of freedom in exchange for increased excellence and precision” because of intensified demands and pressures not only from themselves but also from coaches and parents (Novak, 1976, & Hill, 2009, p. 108, cited in I. Balyi, R. Wade, & C. Higgs, 2013, p. 53). Sport sociologist Jay Coakley (2000) states that “early specialization contributes to a one-dimensional self-concept as a result of a constrained set of life experiences” (cited in in I. Balyi, R. Wade, & C. Higgs, 2013, p. 52). Loaded training schedules, consistent intense and high-volume training, multiple competitions, in addition to school and studies can easily lead to psychological burnout, according to Gould, Udry, Tuffey and Loehr, 1996 (cited in in I. Balyi, R. Wade, & C. Higgs, 2013, p. 53). It affords athletes little time to socialize with friends or take part in other recreational activities. Ironically, the initial intention of creating ‘exceptional athletes’ often hinders their development and increases the potential of sport dropout due to stress and anxiety from extreme real or perceived pressures.

Sport psychologists and sport sociologists estimate the current dropout rate at 70-73% by age 12-13, and it is said to continue to age 17, whereby girls present the higher drop out rate. A study by researchers at the Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports examined 20,000 young athletes. According to the results, the number one reason to get engaged in sports is having FUN!” “I lost interest and it was no longer Fun” was the top reason equally cited by boys and girls to leave the sport! No wonder! That means 27 of 73% potentially may stay engaged in sport but less than 1-2 percent make it to the High Performance or Olympic level! Given the fact that male athletes now compete into their 30’s, I pose the question, what is the early push for success all about? Additionally, athletes in the study provided answered that they would re-enter sport “if practices were more Fun”, and if “coaches were better teachers” (listed as reason #5 for girls and#6 for boys).

Michigan Study: Reasons Children and Youth Engage in Sport and Dropout Reasons































Schloder, M.E. (2017). Parents and children in sport.
Lecture Sociology in Sport.

Burnout – Dropout Signs and Symptoms

Emotional burnout is the by-product of an intensely competitive environment for a group whose biggest wants and needs are being ignored. It basically means physical or emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress due to an intense sport program. Children just starting out in sport are unlikely to be affected; if they get seriously involved, however, it can become a factor. The symptoms of burnout can be physical, mental and/or emotional. Athletes usually feel ‘out of it’ as they experience a loss of control over their lives. Burnout and overtraining syndrome are closely linked, and occur when athletes experience worsening performances despite intense training. It is believed to result from a multitude of factors such as constant high levels of physiologic or emotional stress, fatigue, immune system failure, or insufficient recovery time. There are numerous signs and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and chronic fatigue.












Schloder, M.E. (2017). Parents and children in sport. Lecture Sociology in Sport.

Amanda Visek at George Washington University showed in a study that the focus for children is Fun and social aspect of sports; they ranked winning and competition near the bottom. Adults flipped those values when polled. The kid, who says, “this is Fun in my sport, and this is not – should be heard,” said Mulcahy, Founder and CEO of Paradigm Sports. “It’s no wonder these kids are quitting. We’re not cluing into the reason children play” – and those who aren’t, are left with chronic injuries as well as emotional ones.

There are those, who quit sports for good early, sabotaged by “psychological daggers” inflicted by coaches or teachers, said University of Manitoba’s Dr. Dean Kreillaars. There are those on the elite path, who are emotionally stunted, unable to deal with life outside of their sport. Kreillaars, one of the world’s leading experts on physical literacy and health, related a conversation he had with Lanny McDonald, the NHL Hall of Famer of the NHL Calgary Flames. “If you ask him how many outstanding citizens … there are out of all the teammates that you had, after they had a good career in the NHL, … his answer will be only one of in 23 players,” said Kreillaars. “Many lose their identity after they leave hockey because they are over-specialized, and their identity is 100 per cent tied to that single sport. They lack versatility, and have no longevity, and durability.” None of what has been written here is new information. It’s been around for decades. The IOC released a statement in 2005 ‘damning’ the emergence of ‘early specialization’ because of the physical, psychological and social ailments associated with it, the rising injury rates, and the diminishing sports participation numbers.

Risk of Injuries

Additional negative consequences include overuse and chronic injuries such as tennis elbow, rotator cuff injuries (swimming), stress fractures (gymnastics), ACL injuries (team sports, athletics, tennis, etc.), and knee injuries, especially in female athletes. According Dr. Nota Klentrou (scientist and Kinesiology professor at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), early specialization with the focus on only one sport may help young athletes perform better at that early age but is generally harmful to their long-term development. One particular area of her concern is overuse injury, which may become chronic and/or a career-ending injury, related to increased training and competition in pre-adolescence and adolescence. Research supports ‘integrative’ training in multiple sports and activities, and the use of ‘neuromuscular warm-up’ in programs to reduce the incidence of overuse and chronic injury (Klentrou).


Baker, J., CôtéJ., & Abernathy, B. (2003). Sport-specific training, deliberate practice and the development of expertise in team ball sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 12-25.

Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-term athlete development. A guide to developing a philosophy of sport for life; training frameworks, a consistently successful organization. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Bompa, T. (1995). From childhood to champion athlete. Toronto, ON: Veritas.

Coakley, J. (2000). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (6th ed.) Toronto, ON: Times Mirror/Mosby.

DiFiori, J.P. (2002). Overuse injuries in young athletes: An overview. Athletic Therapy Today, 7(6), 25-29.

Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S., & Loehr, J. (1996). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: A quantitative psychological assessment. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 322-340.

Hill, G. (2009). Sport specialization: Causes and concerns. [PowerPoint slides]. Presented at the Long-term Athlete Development Conference of the Utah Athletic Foundation. Salt Lake City, UT.

Klika, B. (2018). Early sport specialization: Getting them to listen. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from http://iyca.org/early-sport-specialization-getting-them-to-listen/?inf_ contact_key=d7b16a7aefda94e3123209fae92a894930bf5ff352ad8d103b6630ba600eba02

Sanderson, L. (1989). Growth and development considerations for design of training plans for young athletes. Sports, 10(2).

Schwarz, C. (May 17, 2017). Hockey players who can’t catch. The Calgary Herald, B8.

Touretski, G. (1993). Physiological development of the young swimmer. A rational for the long-term preparation of the young swimmer. Paper presented at the Australian Institute for Sport. Canberra, Australia.

Weineck, J. (2010). Optimales Training. Leistungsphysiologische Trainingslehre unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Kinder und Jugendtrainings [Optimal training. Physiological performance within training theory with special consideration consideration for children and youth training]. Balingen, Germany: Spitta Verlag.


Dr. Jürgen Weineck, PhD, Dr. Med., Emeritus. Sport Institute for Sport Science and Sport. University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.







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