Ever-increasing requirements for success in competitive sports has created added pressure for young athletes to train with greater intensity at earlier ages. The goal to become the next Olympian or more commonly, to obtain a college scholarship, motivates many parents to encourage their children to specialize in one sport at a young age. This has resulted in an increased demand for year-round sport training programs, facilities and products. But is this approach really an effective way to generate long-term success in competitive athletics?
John P. DiFiori, MD, President of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Chief of the Division of Sports Medicine and Non-Operative Orthopaedics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Team Physician for the UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, says that few who specialize in one sport at a very young age make it to elite levels. "With the exception of select sports such as gymnastics in which the elite competitors are very young, the best data we have would suggest that the odds of achieving elite levels with this method are exceedingly poor. In fact, some studies indicate that early specialization is less likely to result in success than participating in several sports as a youth, and then specializing at older ages."
Dr. DiFiori encourages youth attempt to a variety of sports and activities. He says this allows children to discover sports that they enjoy participating in, and offers them the opportunity to develop a broader array of motor skills. In addition, this may have the added benefit of limiting overuse injury and burnout.
A UCLA sports specialization study surveying 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes, average age 19, found that 88 percent participated in an average of two to three sports as a children, and 70 percent did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12. In a similar study of Olympians in Germany, results found that on average, the Olympians had participated in two other sports during childhood before or parallel to their main sport. Both studies support the concept of sports diversification in adolescence -- not specialization.
In his nearly 20 years serving as a team physician for the UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, Dr. DiFiori appreciates the benefits of sports participation in general -- increased self-esteem, self-discipline, development of leadership qualities and social skills, and overall health and well-being. But he warns external pressure on a child to train and compete in one sport at an early age may cause more harm than good. Social isolation, lack of independence, preferential treatment, abusive relationship, burnout and injury are some of the potential negative effects.
"Physical activity contributes to a happy and healthy childhood," says Dr. DiFiori, "however, parents, coaches and children should monitor and measure their involvement level in a singular sport against the overall well-being and future success of the participant."
Dr. DiFiori presented, "Early Sports Participation: A Prescription for Success?" on Thursday, April 18, 2013, at the annual meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine in San Diego, Calif.
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