New study finds fault in hyperspecialization in youth sports

2014-11-28 11:50:05 by Dr. Joe Congeni - Director of Sports Medicine, as posted on the blog.

10-year-old soccer players. CC/Flick photo by reid.neureiter 10-year-old club soccer players. CC/Flick photo by reid.neureiter

Hyperspecialization, when kids give up all other sports to focus on one year-round, seems like the obvious track in building a star player. But, a recent study from UCLA proves diversification at a young age actually has more performance benefits in the long run.

Plus, it's just not worth it. Another study revealed kids who hyperspecialize have a 36 percent injury rate and a higher chance of requiring surgery.

Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with WAKR morning show host Ray Horner about this topic.

Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion. Please note there's a problem with music playing over WAKR's audio stream for the first 45 seconds. Originally aired on 1590 WAKR-AM on June 18, 2014.

HORNER: With us right now, Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children's Hospital. Joe, let's talk sports for these youngsters.

DR. CONGENI: Yeah, let's get even younger than the "Johnny Football." Let's go down to the youth level. This is not a new problem, you and I have talked about it a lot -- hyperspecialization they're calling it now. That's the term people are using, hyperspecialization in youth sports.

Dr. Joe Congeni Dr. Joe Congeni

There was a big op-ed and a lot of discussion about it in The New York Times in the past week. In a career of 26, 27 years for me, this is a problem we've dealt with being in pediatric sports medicine, but uh, I'm not sure it's a lot worse, but it kinda waxes and wanes.

But, anyway, with this article, they pointed out there's one New York City youth soccer club that advertised in the newspaper that they have a U6 team. Starting at age 6, the coach picks players and stars that are poised for elite-level soccer. In U7, they do pre-travel and by U8, they're doing travel soccer in this club.

And, you know, clubs for all sorts of different sports in youth start at a young age -- 6, 7, 8 years of age. I mean, that's really, really pretty young. You know that these clubs can be upwards of $800 to $3,000 or more to be a part of these clubs, with teaching and travel?

I think I was mentioning to you off the air last time, we, about 6 weeks ago, went to Indianapolis for a wedding. We left Akron, all the hotels were filled 'cause there was an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball tournament. We got to Columbus to visit my kid, stayed overnight, the hotel was filled, every single room, because there was a soccer tournament. We went over to Indianapolis, our hotel was totally filled because there was JO (Junior Olympic) volleyball, every room filled.

So, you know, my question is, these kids are coming from North Carolina and Pennsylvania, can't they find kids that, you know, they can play sports with in their same state? Kids and families have to travel all over.

But, the travel teams, the club sports seem to be a big part of it.

The study at Loyola University that spawned this a little bit showed there's about a 36 percent injury rate of serious injuries that these young athletes get when they give up all other sports at a young age to play one sport year-round, 36 percent.

And, also, a significant increase in surgeries that you usually only see reserved for people in their 20s or 30s. This population has to have some of those surgeries done ultimately from breaking down their body with these overuse injuries. And so, you know, the question is, is it worth it?

There was one study also from UCLA that was presented at our meeting in New Orleans 2 months ago that shows it's not worth it. Actually, they looked at the fact, kind of what we call where the cream rises to the top, diversification actually has more performance benefits in the long run.

And more of their highest-level scholarship athletes in this study at UCLA and other schools were ones that didn't start at a young age to specialize. In fact, the average age of specialization for that study was 15 years of age for the highest level athletes.

And, so, the recommendations out of this are, you know, No. 1, probably about specialization before age 12. There's a lot of benefit for kids to be involved in a variety of different sports. Think diversification, not specialization.

No. 2, there's a lot of burnout and dropout in sports for kids. A lot of kids now ... we see are picking up other sports, secondary sports, like men's volleyball and lacrosse and other sports like that because they've been burned out or injured in their primary sport that they were playing in and specializing in.

So, the word is still out there. Let's try to to a number of different sports at a young age. I think that's probably the best way to raise our young athletes both performance-wise and health-wise.

HORNER: Great research and insight, Joe. Thanks for catching up with us. We'll talk to you next week.

DR. CONGENI: Alright, Ray, take care. Have a great week.

Post or read comments about this story on >>

Share your story!

Contact Us

330-543-1000 (operator)

(8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)


find a location
Find a location Type the first 3-5 letters of a specialty, service or location:
Or, view: a map, a list of all locations, locations by city or locations near me.
find a doctor
Find a doctor Type the first 3-5 letters of the name, location or specialty:
Or, view a list of all doctors by name, location and specialty.