Sport specialization debate: Are kids winning or losing by focusing on one sport year-round?

2015-04-24 10:06:59 by Dr. Joe Congeni - Director of Sports Medicine, as posted on the blog.

CC Flickr/Steve Baker CC Flickr/Steve Baker

A recent study published in Sports Health medical journal revealed negative consequences to sport specialization in youth. Though we've debated on this subject before, there's now evidence to support young athletes should play multiple sports.

In addition to the increased risk of overuse injuries and burnout, it also pointed to kids missing out on other important activities, such as family meals, vacations, hobbies and even other lifetime sports like golf.

This week, I spoke with 1590 WAKR morning show host Ray Horner about this recent study. One common mistake parents often make to avoid the consequences of sport specialization is to add on other sports or activities, but all that does is increase the risk for injury and burnout.

Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.

HORNER: Melissa, let's hook up right now with our good friend, Dr. Joe Congeni from Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children's Hospital. Joe, good morning.

DR. CONGENI: Hey, Ray. How are ya?

HORNER: I'm doing well today. I'm not happy about snow in the forecast, but I'm doing okay.

DR. CONGENI: Yeah ... this time of year though everything's in bloom ... I love our spring.

HORNER: Yeah, I do, too. We're scheduled to have a baseball game tonight, so I think we're gonna have to button down with some parkas or something.

DR. CONGENI: Aw. That's the one sport that's tough. I'm following a lot of lacrosse with my son playing and I think they'd like some weather change, but baseball just doesn't go along with snowflakes.

HORNER: No. That's for sure. Hey, what do you have for us today?

Dr. Joe Congeni Dr. Joe Congeni

DR. CONGENI: Hey, along those exact same lines. For so long, you know, we've talked on this show and in other venues when you talk about youth sports about sport specialization in young athletes.

You know, should kids play multiple sports, particularly before you get to high school? High school and beyond is a different deal. But, should kids play multiple sports or focus on one sport year-round?

A study came out in one of our journals recently. It's called Sports Health out of Chicago, Loyola University. A friend of ours, Cyndi LaBella, and her group looked at it.

They actually showed some evidence that kids that specialize at a young age in sports have more risk of higher rates of injuries, increased psychological stress in sports and burnout, and quitting sports at a young age.

And, I think everybody would probably agree that those 3 outcomes are not exactly what we're looking for in what should be a very, very good thing for young kids is playing sports.

And so, they kinda went on to prove what a lot of us have been saying for a long time is this is a really important time in kids' lives and it probably isn't the best thing for them to spend 12 months a year playing the same sport and focusing on one sport -- and there's certain sports in particular that lend themselves to that. But, you know, a couple of areas, Ray, that we've talked about :


  • One is this is an important time where kids could be exposed to other sports, lifetime sports or newer sports, like, you know, guy's volleyball or lacrosse like I said, or golf that they'd play the rest of their life. They miss out on some of that.

    CC Flickr/USAG Livorno PAO CC Flickr/USAG Livorno PAO

  • And, No. 2 is kids miss out on family events. You've heard it so many times about the loss of family meals together and the loss even sometimes of vacations. People change or cancel or don't have vacations because they're with their travel teams and so forth.

  • And also, a lot of other things are falling by the wayside like scouting or camping, or being on debate or mock trial, and other things like that that kids would have the access to. And, um, kids are missing out on important things like summer jobs even.


And so, people that have been around awhile as parents like me, once you live the other end of it and you see kids go to high school, go to college, leave your house and go into other areas, you feel kinda bad about some of those things and out on some of those things.

And, now that it's really kinda in the literature that there are some, some negative, uh, uh, consequences, there's more and more evidence that it's best for kids to play sports.

I'll give you one more caveat, Ray. One mistake people make they feel that when their kids are young, they know that they shouldn't just be playing in one sport. But, what they do to try to make up for that is they keep playing that one sport 12 months a year and stay on their travel team or their club team, but they just add activities to that.

And, many of those kids wind up down at our office as they've added 2 or 3 sports in the spring. For instance, they play on a travel baseball team, but they'll add a sport like lacrosse or they'll add a sport like track and then they're playing 2 or 3 sports at once and their risk of injury goes up significantly.

So, I really wanted to talk about this debate again. I think it's been awhile since we've talked about it and especially now that there's some evidence in the literature, .

HORNER: Well, you know, you the different muscles, do the different activities for the sport. You always hear them say, Joe, "Well, he's not in basketball shape after coming off of football season," or "He's not in baseball shape" and those types of things. ... When you play the different sports, they use different parts of the body maybe more than some of the others do.

DR. CONGENI: You're exactly right. ... We call that muscle memory. Doing the same things over and over again is not good for the body.

And, you know what, I don't know if it's just because, you know, I'm out in the community a lot and I know a lot of coaches and coaches that are allies of mine, almost all of them by the high school years say they want their kids to get into other sports.

Sure, the football coaches know that some weight training while they're playing other sports, but they like their kids running track and they like their kids playing basketball. But that's in the high-school setting.

When you're in the youth setting ... you know these club teams and training programs and stuff like that, they also have some secondary gain. They make money and that's how they grow by having a lot of kids on their club teams. And sometimes, their perspective is no, you gotta stay with that club program.

I'll tell you what, most high school and college coaches I talk to say they like their kids playing other sports and using other muscles and thinking about other sports and the psychological aspects. So, you're exactly right. You know that as a coach.

HORNER: Alright, Joe. Good stuff this morning. We'll catch up with ya next week.

DR. CONGENI: Thanks, Ray. Have a great week.

HORNER: You too. Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children's Hospital.

Originally aired on 1590 WAKR-AM on April 22, 2015


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.