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Elementary School to the Pros: The Culture of Specialization in Youth Sport

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Elementary School to the Pros: The Culture of Specialization in Youth Sport

Kyle Levers, MS, CSCS

Despite all of the trophies and accomplishments hanging on the bedroom walls of today’s best youth athletes, many fail to make it through high school or collegiate athletics.  The culture of youth sports has drastically changed from previous generations in which young athletes are inundated with select, travel, and club teams that cultivate an intensely competitive environment among all that are involved.  The intense competition of youth sport as well as the win-at-all-cost attitude of most parents and coaches has created an atmosphere of great pressure, physicality, and early sport specialization. 

Specialization among youth athletes has many associated risks and rewards that formulate a gray area surrounding this issue, making it open to interpretation for many parents, trainers, and coaches.  An abundance of specialized select teams are now commonplace that lead to limited off-season time or rest periods for many youth athletes, if they want to “keep up” with other players, that is.  In conjunction with improper training practices and absence of coach education, this lack of rest, proper base preparation, and essential nutrition further increases the risk of injury in maturing athletes.  The irony in attempting to “keep up or stay ahead” of other players by increasing training volume is that, depending on the sport, only 2-12% of high school athletes will compete collegiately and 0.2-0.5% of high school athletes ever make it to the professional level according to statistics provided by the NCAA.  A direct relationship lies between the adolescent athletes who specialize in a particular sport and intensive training or even overtraining. 

Youth sports performance development is a buzz term created to define and encompass all types of training strategies for youth athletes.  Training programs and extended opportunities for youth athletes have become commonplace, therefore athletes are driven to search for specialized training that may provide the aforementioned advantage.  Increasing the volume, intensity, and load expectations within youth sports performance training does not come without consequence.  The toll that these heightened demands take on a youth athlete is best exemplified through serious problems such as overtraining, overuse, injury, and psychological burnout.  Thus, the safety of high-level athletics for young athletes is a growing concern in the athletic community, but the sparse research and limited scope of specific exercise and training safety guidelines has not been effectively communicated to coaches and other specialists in the field.

More specifically, it is realized that injuries tend to be more common during peak growth velocity, with some injuries more likely to occur if existing biomechanical problems are present.  Repetitive intense training practices and overtraining of youth athletes in conjunction with specialization have been identified as potential causes for both short-term and long-term health problems: cardiac functionality, musculoskeletal injury and growth, nutrition, and sexual maturation.  Overtraining syndrome can be identified by an athlete’s lack of enthusiasm about practice or competition, fatigue, or difficulty completing normal athletic routines in addition to chronic muscle or joint pain, personality changes, and elevated resting heart rate.


Prevention of overtraining and burnout can be addressed by encouraging an athlete to become well-rounded by participating in a variety of sports or recreational activities as opposed to a single sport. Further, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends that a youth athlete should be limited to one sporting activity for a maximum of five days per week with at least one rest day in which there is not any organized physical activity. This council also recommended that the adolescent athlete should have a minimum of two to three months off per year in their particular sport in for purposes of injury healing, physiological recovery, and psychological rebuilding.  Ultimately, proper physiological and psychological recovery is essential to ensure peak short-term and long-term performance as well as to prevent the problems resulting from a demanding training load no matter the sport.  The fundamentals of recovery and regeneration are the cornerstones of training that will help any athlete remain active and healthy over their lifetime. 







1. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2000). Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics106 (1 Pt 1), 154-157.



2. Brenner, J. S. (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119, 1242-1245.


3. Capranica, L., & Millard-Stafford, M. L. (2011). Youth sport specialization: how to manage competition and training. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 6(4), 572-579.


4. DiFiori, J.P. (1999). Overuse injuries in children and adolescents.  The Physician and Sports Medicine, 27.


5. Hecimovich, M. (2004). Sport specialization in youth: A literature review. Journal of the American Chiropractic Association, 41(4), 32-41.

6. Wiersma, L. D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12, 13-22.



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