Opinion Piece Questions Assumptions About Early Sports Specialization
Several world-leading experts in sports medicine penned an opinion piece asking the medical community to revisit sweeping assumptions made about early sports specializations.
Some studies have suggested that early sports specialization for children and youth under the age of 18 increases injury rates and decreases social opportunity for normal development. Dr. Julia Alleyne, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Family and Community Medicine and her international counterparts expressed their doubts.
“Early judgements, that were not based on solid research methodology, were made about early sport specialization but our literature review determined that there is not much published data on the short term or long term risks and benefits of early sport specialization,” says Dr. Alleyne. “In other words, we really don’t know the impact of early sports specialization.”
Early sport specialization is defined as a focus on one sport for greater than 6-10 hours a week and for most months of the year. Children who are enrolled in sports at a very young age, some as young as 4 years old, often develop high levels of skill acquisition for a given sport and increased physical stamina.
Sports such as figure skating and gymnastics that require complex and quick movements need to begin training early while children are still developing balance, flexibility and strength to be ready for international competition in their early adolescence.
“We wrote this piece because, over the last number of years, we have witnessed the unveiling of the Youth Summer Olympics. It begs the question that if young athletes are gearing up for competitions at the age of 12 instead of 16, that moves all of their training into younger years. Does that have a positive or negative impact? Again, we do not know.”
A single injury, she says, can stop a child from achieving sports-related goals. The opinion piece points to their literature review which indicates that competing in several sports at a time, rather than one, at a young age and even until adolescence can ensure fewer injuries and ongoing participation in sports.
“We are somewhat unsure as to whether or not there are negative effects to early sports specialization but we did find that in some sports where there is repeated movement, there is a higher injury rate as opposed to those who do several sports and therefore have a greater diversity of movements.”
This opinion piece is a call-out for three things: Asking for good research, stressing the benefits of sports specialization in youth as it is known to optimize health and produce well-balanced adults, and cautiously researching early sports specialization.
“We encourage kids to do sports. Most parents, educators and medical specialists encourage sports too because it helps develop the mind and body. A child who has talent in sport can become a role model for other kids to be physically active.”