The Dangers of Letting Kids Specialize in Just One Sport

By , SparkPeople Blogger
This spring, we interviewed Dave Ellis, one of the country's foremost sports nutritionists. Now, Ellis is sharing with us a hot topic in youth sports: the dangers of early specialization.

As a coach, I work with kids along the continuum. My own kids have been through the USA Hockey ranks on their way up. My oldest is going into college, my middle one is 14 and my youngest is 10, and I've been able to coach them and others along the way and so even though I get to work at the high end of sports, I get to experience the grass roots level through my own kids.

There's a real grass-roots efforts afoot right now to de-emphasize early specialization and winning in sports and in turn focus on long-term athletic development and the process behind that as it's relevant to the stages of maturation.

There's been a lot of great science out there for years from people who specialize in cognitive and physical development who've been watching athletes burn out at young ages when there was a greater genetic window there for them to perform longer.

They've watched large pools of athletes yield very mediocre potential instead of high-end talent. As they backtrack on all those maladies, they've really come up with some realizations that youth sports across the spectrum need to get their heads on straight.

One of the dilemmas any family with a young athlete faces the minute they leave the neighborhood YMCA youth league for a more competitive club team is the almost immediate vacuum to consume the young athletes time on a year-round basis.

The lure of specialization from being a multi-sport athlete to a single sport athletes is typically fueled by the hope that your child will have a better shot at moving up the ladder from B to A teams and to starter status-and for the short term this may well be true.

Any young athlete who is that engaged in one set of motor skills is going to sharpen them and, to some degree, improve performance. But therein lies the dilemma. Those who scout our Olympic talent pools and AA and AAA travel teams at a growing number of elite tournaments designed to showcase talent are seeing some negative outcomes associated with early specialization.

Early bloomers typically have an advantage on these AAA teams, and while they dominate the domestic stage with their early maturity and specialization, they are not as competitive on the international stage once other competitors have matured. In fact there is evidence that the athlete who didn’t specialize early and was a little later in maturation might end up being the better athlete! Why you ask?

That multi-sport athlete kept on developing motor skills and competitive vision that might have been more challenging in totality than the narrowed focus of the specialized athlete. These multi-sport athletes are hungry to compete as they approach their prime, and because many were late bloomers, they had to be smarter players to make up for their lack of size and strength. So when their bodies do catch up maturation-wise, they often times have a sharper set of skills, and the net result is an athlete who has the tools and the motivation to compete at an elite level versus the burn out early specialized athlete who often seems to have peaked too early and below their net potential.

So don’t be surprised when you see national governing bodies of sport at the Olympic level moving initiatives down the competitive food chain that push an agenda for young athletes to mix it up at early ages with a variety of sports that are complementary in nature (somewhat metabolically close to demands) but different enough to demand adaptation to new motor skills and maybe--more importantly--get out of the same gym or rink and outside with a new group dynamic.

It’s a refreshing change for everyone in the family, including the parents. A great example of just such an initiative is the Long Term Athletic Development plan that is being implemented by USA Hockey’s governing body (for more information, visit One of the architects of this program is USA Hockey’s Kenny Martel, who said:

“As a national governing body, USA Hockey has the responsibility to provide the structure and guidance that will promote the health, safety and development of our children in the sport of ice hockey. Despite the good intentions of many people involved of in our sport, the system of development that has evolved in many ways has become contrary to our stated mission. With our American Development Model, USA Hockey is implementing a nationwide LTAD initiative to change the development culture in the sport of ice hockey.”

For 28 years, Ellis, a registered dietitian and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, has worked with collegiate and professional teams across the country. He created his three-step Fueling Tactics system years before the government unveiled the food pyramid. His plan focuses on keeping athletes' immune systems up with plenty of produce and healthy oils, selecting fiber-rich starches and reducing fast-digesting sugars when inactive to provide more energy for training, and diversifying protein sources to promote quicker recoveries.

Ellis has worked with every sport imaginable, from collegiate and professional football and baseball to NASCAR, yachting, weightlifting and even ice skating. Ellis regularly authors columns for multiple publications, including Training & Conditioning and USA Hockey Magazine, and is also a Master Level V USA Hockey Certified Coach. He is often described as a “nutrition coach” because of his ability to motivate athletes to eat well.

Were you involved in sports as a kid? Did you "specialize" early? If you have children, do they specialize in one sport or do they play several?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


I did not specialize in any one sport, even with my young enthusiastic love for any and all sports, and it wasn't until I was older (junior high) that I participated in basketball and track (because I signed up myself and walked home from practice every day). I have always been told I'm a 'natural athlete' because I easily pick up any sport I play. I play hockey these days and was happy to see props for Dave Ellis, I read his articles in USA Hockey's magazine all the time. I think all the participation in the sports I've played (softball, soccer, and hurling are others) has helped me be a better athlete in any sport I play. It seems I've always been able to take some skill learned from another activity that helps. Report
thanks for your article. I was a music child- I have 2 daughters age 3 currently they do gymnastics 1x a week and dance 1x a week- interestingly enough my husband and I recently had this conversation about specializing- ( they are to young now to decide) a concern of mine is the young 9 yr old in the gym who has her hands, ankles, knees, wrapped while practicing- isn't she just to young for all these wraps?(she only been doing gymnastics since she was 18mos old) My husband who was in several competitve sports growning up wonders if some of his adult injuries (ortho ) are related to the stress placed on his body as a child. we agreed the children can do any sport they choose to do as long as they do another one (2) running and say tennis or swimming and dance. I think it is important to be well rounded. - thats what makes an over all healthy athletic adult - right ? one who exercises as an extension of their day? Report
A group of us moms were just discussing this at work. We concluded that there's so much pressure for kids to excel at one sport, they're not encouraged to even try any other sports, which seems bad for a number of reasons. How is a child supposed to find what they're really good at and what they really enjoy if they don't try lots of different sports? And even if they find one they're good at and enjoy early on, playing various sports seems like a much better way to cross-train! My 8 year old just just decided after 3 years of baseball, that it's not for him, so we're trying Tae Kwon Do as a family. Any sport the kids express an interest in is great, as long as they're active. Report
Personally I think it's a shame that we are driving our programs to produce stellar athletes, instead of well rounded citizens! I love a good competition as much as anyone, and team sports teach all kinds of lessons that are valuable later in life. Practice, cooperation, how to hone a skill ... but what I've been reading says that it is better to focus on a broad range of experiences and get the basic fitness in place first for youngsters, and save the focus for later. Still, better focused fitness than none at all!!! Report
I think a lot of this has to do with where you live, too. Metropolitan areas have more kids and so I think the push to be competitive is larger. They have levels of competition that I think push the kids.

I live outside of the city and around here they need to have kids be able to play multiple sports or they wouldn't have enough kids playing any sports! :) I also love that our rec programs focus on fundamentals. For example, football & volleyball are only about the fundamentals - no games - until they get to middle school. I love that is how they focus it! Our rule is that they can only be in one thing at a time and if they sign up for something, they have to fulfill the obligation. No quitting in the middle.
I never cared about playing sports when I was young however my oldest daughter whom is 11 has played multiple sports. Her father played sports but didn't specialize in just one. I love that even if it's a sport she hasn't had much practice in she still wants to try. Report
It is appalling how as a child gets older (really starting by around 10) that leagues start to try and push specialization. My son turns 14 on Friday and is, strictly on his own merit, a very good athlete. He also loves to play multiple sports - in the fall he plays soccer and runs cross country. In the spring he plays lacrosse. In the winter, he plays basketball even though he is only a mediocre player. He plays because "it keeps me in shape for lacrosse and I get to hang out with my friends." For most kids, that is all they want - to hang out with friends and be part of a team. It is the parents who create this competitive environment where someone has to always be the best. Let the kids have fun and try out sports in a non-threatening, non-competitive environment. They will figure out their true passion on their own. Report
I was lucky enough to have girls sports available when I went to school. I was very athletic in school and played basketball, volleyball and was on the track team. I would have played softball in school also but it was not available at the time. So instead I played softball on summer league teams, and also played football in my neighbor hood with the other guys playing. I beleive that kids should play different sports to broaden their horizons. I really enjoyed playing all the different sports that I was in and it helped me to realize that I could have fun in all sports not just one special sport. Buy the way I started my program 1 week ago and so far I have lost 13 pounds! So everyone keep at it and don't give up!!! Report
I can't imagine putting this much thought into what sports my kids want to participate in. This is just too much pressure, let kids be kids! Let them choose what they want to do, and just have fun. Report
I think limiting a child's interests in one particular activity can apply to other things as well. For instance, I had music shoved down my throat from age 6. I learned to play 5 instruments and while it wasn't a totally bad experience it limited my growth. When I expressed a desire to try pre-law or political science in college, I thought my parents would have coronaries! To avoid arguments, I went along with their plan and majored in music. It took years for me to explore other interests and if I'd been allowed to try sports I probably would have avoided the weight and health problems that plagued me later. I say a well rounded child grows into a happy adult. Report
My parents put me in all kinds of sports when I was young. I was definitely an athlete from 4th grade to high school senior. I started with T-ball when I was 6, graduated to softball at 8 (which I didn't like so I quit after 1 year), then my soccer and track & field years started at age 9 - which I continued through high school. I tried other sports in-between for 1 or 2 years each, such as basketball, gymnastics, swimming (7th in district for th 50 meter), and rowing. The funny thing is I hated running, but I loved playing, so I put up with it. I lettered in most of my sports, but wasn't good enough to play on any college teams, and ended up dropping out of ROTC in college, and that was pretty much the end of my athletic years.

Oh, and my daughter is 6, and she doesn't play any organized sports yet, but she is very active and I plan to put her in soccer next year (she told me she really wants to play - and I'm convinced she'll be a rock star soccer player. hee hee) Report
I loved gymnastics like nothing else but my parents kept me in the Y classes so I did lots of other stuff too. When I moved and attended a private competitive club, I loved it but got burnt out and quit within 2 years. I got a LOT better than I would have just staying with the casual classes, but I just couldn't take the 4-7 hours per day it took to get there. I turned 16, I wanted a life. Report
I used to watch a young girl at my daughter's gymnastics classes. She was awesome and definitely on track to go to the Olympics. Unfortunately, after changing from the local recreation center gym to a more competitive gym, she burned out and completely quit gymnastics. Report
I played a little, but never stuck with it. I regret that, but we moved a lot, and I was pretty shy. My children have tried lots of different things in there early years. Report
I am a 50's baby and was from the country so sports were not like they are now. And we had things that had to be done at home. I played volleyball and was on thepep team. We had boys football and basketball, baseball and maybe golf. I think today things are overdone. Report
Were you involved in sports as a kid? Yes, I took tap, ballet, and jazz as an elementary school student, and then in high school I played on the tennis team. I also helped start a Running Club in high school. My family always did active things like hiking, canoeing, biking, skateboarding, rollerskating, and swimming, though these were not organized sports.

Did you "specialize" early? No, I did not specialize in tennis. I took lessons from age 10 because it was fun and I liked it. Those lessons got me on the tennis team in high school, and competing in high school got me on the tennis team in college as a freshman. However, I quit after first term in college, because I wasn't able to keep up with my studies, and that was more important to me than playing tennis.

If you have children, do they specialize in one sport or do they play several? I have four children. The oldest (now 18) played soccer from age 7 through 13; she then switched to Kung-fu for 2 years. In high school, she prefered participating in clubs (German club, Museum club, etc.) rather than organized sports. The next younger daughter (now 14) tried dance and soccer, but didn't care for either. She did DDR (Dance, Dance, Revolution) club, Newspaper club, Student Council, Chorus, and participated in the school plays in middle school instead. Now in high school, she is active in other clubs, but not organized sports. The youngest 2 are twins - boy and a girl - almost 13. They are in middle school. The boy has been in soccer since age 5, and really loves it. We are trying to convince him to try cross-country (track) in the spring, as he is quite the runner, and we think it will be a great cross-training for his soccer. He is in organized soccer, but non-competitive (Parks & Rec). He'll have the opportunity next year (Seventh grade) to try out for the middle school soccer team, but unfortunately not many boys make the team, and if a boy doesn't make the middle school team, it's not likely he'll make the high school team. Luckily, our Rec teams play through age 19, so no matter what, he'll be able to play soccer through high school. His twin sister tried dance, then soccer, but really didn't come into her own until she joined Girl Scouts. She loves the social aspect of the Scouts, and though it is not an organized sport, she has done several camp-outs and hikes, as well as participated in a dog-training lesson. The Scouts are pretty active! My hubby and I don't push the kids to organized sports, but we would support the child if one wanted to really make a career of it. Report
It's great to see an article against specialization! My daughter is pretty good at softball and volleyball and also loves dance team and basketball. Many people have said she needs to pick between softball and volleyball and play in the "club" volleyball league or AAU softball teams to really become better. She's 9 and doesn't want to quit the other sports she loves. What's sad is that to play in high school in most of our area schools you have to play in the competitive leagues. I wish I knew what age is time to choose 1 sport. I feel that 9 is too young but many of the kids she knows have already done this. I don't want her to get behind but also don't want to make her choose so young. Report
thanks for the information.. I liked the blog a lot Report
When growing up I indulged in all kinds of sports since I had a younger and older brother. We all played sports but not in school. In my 20's I got into ballroom dancing. I kept that up for a few years. My daughters don't care for sports. Although they did roller skate for a few years Report
My daughter loves soccer, basketball and cross country. She tried softball but didn't care for it. To me, 3 sports is enough...she enjoys them and she is the one who chooses to participate. Report
I tried a few different sports in my younger days, but found my niche in softball. It was what I was good at. My daughter (now 21) was the same way. She tried dance & basketball & volleyball, but with her body build adn stature was best suited for.... softball! She she played for years & I coached. I am still coaching & she has not jumped into the coach role as well, but softball seems to be what's in our blood. :) Report
When I was young they did have girl sports we got an hour of p.e. a day thats it. Most of the boys who played sports played at least two sports some played three, they were football, basketball and baseball. There was no soccer, swim teams or any of the other sports that are out there today. Report
I didn't play sports growing up, but I have a 4 year old who is very athletic. To me, this article reflects common sense - I won't allow my son to specialize simply because he needs to grow his whole body and his mind. Nor will sports become the "be-all and end-all" of his life - his mind is too valuable. But he is an athlete - right now, he plays soccer, baseball and tennis, plus has a dance class through his school. Only the soccer lessons are organized and none of it is competitive. I'm hoping to keep it like that well into elementary school - sports should be for fun and healthy development. Once they become neither, then it's time to stop. Report
We have 4 children and so we allow them to play one sport at a time. Three of my children have played a variety of sports but my 7 year old loves soccer and it is all he wants to do. As long as he is having fun, we want to provide him with oppurtunities to develop. I think you have to follow the child's lead and perhaps burn-out will not occur. Also, make sure that your coaches and team have the same philosophy as you. Sports should be fun and an oppurtunity to learn how to deal with success as well as failure! Report
This sounds reasonable. Thank you for the info. Report
When I was growing up, there were virtually NO organized sports for girls. I played football, baseball, basketball and anything else with the boys back then. We also swam, ice skated, roller skated and any other non-organized sport we could find! Then Title 9 came along and suddenly we had team sports! I played basketball, softball, bowling and tennis in school. We didn't have specialized athletes; heck we were just glad to play!

My son started playing sports when he was 5, starting with t-ball. He played baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and ran track all through his school years. Granted, he was better at football and basketball because of his size, but he was good at all sports that he played. He loved sports and would never have played just one! When you see how small the percentage of kids who end up playing professional sports for a living really is, why not let them be kids and participate in whatever sport they want or the parents can afford? It's not always about winning, but learning too. Report
It is the parents and gungho coaches that often ruin sports for kids. My sons played a variety of sports---baseball, basketball and soccer, took swimming lessons---my older boys were lucky to have some great coaches. My youngest was a different story---he ended up not playing baseball because of coaches and in soccer, I actually had him play on a city team to get away from nasty small town coaches. I wanted them to learn fair play and good sportmanship---which I think has helped them become the fine young men that they are. Too often I say kids that were groomed in one sport being told how good they were that turned into these rude, arrogant boys who thought they would become pros---none of which did . Variety is the Spice of Life---which I think this article says. Report
We do this with my oldest, who is 7. He does karate all year long (includes sparring and weapons training to mix it up) and baseball in the spring/summer. He's tried soccer, and we want to do swimming this year. I want my kids to have the ability to try everything and then focus on a couple they love and can continue to do. At the same time, though, you don't want to overextend them and not let them be kids when they have school all day and then practice/games almost every day after school and on weekends. They still need to be kids. Report
My son were involved in several, football, basketball, track & field. Report
This makes a lot of sense to me Report
My kids play soccer at the non competitive under 6 level and I am just amazed (not in a good way) every week to hear parents screaming instructions at their kids. I just want to yell, "Can't you just let them have fun?" I think that youth sports should be fun for the kids and if my kids wanted to play more than one, I would be okay with that. Right now, they are happy just playing soccer. ")
I didn't play lots of sports. I was a colorguard for several years. However, I enjoyed this article because it is helping me with my son. I diversified his sports this year and while I didn't love it, I see it may have helped him! Report
Why does sport have to be sooo competative and status concious? What happenened to fun and enjoyment. Maybe if kids were allowed to PLAY sport as opposed to being expected to be the next great athlete they would carry on past school and build up a healthy body image and healthy ideas on doing some form of exercise instead of hating themselves and being terrified of failure... Report
I am trying with my children to give them one or two sports each year to help them be able to decide what they want to play. The people who scare me are the coaches and parents who forget that these are just games and the children should be learning to be good sports and have fun. My mother didn't allow my brother to play football while in HS and now he doesn't do anything athletic or physical for that matter. I often wonder how different his life might be had she allowed him to play. I think I push my oldest a little because of the example of my mother. I just want my children to have fun and learn that winning isn't everything! Report
My kids played many different sports in school, starting at 5. Now they don't play any of them. My dad always said they should join the golf team because that is a sport they can play for the rest of their lives! I coached mainly soccer, but also basketball & softball/baseball for over 10 years. I always tried to play every player equally regardless of talent (my kids always got pulled because I was afraid of not playing everyone else!) We always had successful teams, the kids that weren't quite as athletically inclined usually quit in later years anyway. (Small town though, things might be different in larger schools with more competition). Report
I avoided sports as much as possible when I was young; I wasn't very athletic OR competitive. I was a good swimmer from an early age, and one year I was on a swim team. I made it through the practices, but never got picked to participate in the meets. So I guess I never had a chance to get burned out on one sport. Now I just exercise for fitness and fun, and "compete" against myself. Report
I wasn't athletic as a child (although I am now). I think it is wrong to overemphasize competitive sport in young children, although it is great for them to just go out and play and have fun. Some youth league parents and coaches are scary, in my opinion.

And some programs are good, it varies.

I think everyone, kids and adults, should cross train, even if their primary interest is in one thing only. Report
I'm just as glad my kid had little interest in competitive sports. He tried track, wrestling, golf, basketball, swimming, softball and bowling.

Now as an adult, he can join a softball team, golf with his dad, or play pickup basketball with friends--and enjoy it! This is a gift that will last a lifetime. Report
I only ever played one sport at a time. I played tennis for a while and loved it, then one day I quit. I have no idea why. I did track for 3 years, then just didn't want to do it anymore. I now recognize that the reason I was so unfit for so long was that PE focused so heavily on learning the rules of different sports that I didn't know you could get fit and not play. Had it occurred to me to really train for my sports rather than going through the motions, I might have developed my interest in and passion for fitness much earlier! As I try to increase speed and mileage in running, I really wish I had been doing it all along. I say teach kids the basics of fitness, and let them choose where they want to express that, whether in sports or in the gym. Report
very interesting.. last year when my son's coach gave him a list of exercises to do weekly.. i consulted our pediatrition and come to find out.. it was just a little to much to expect from an already very atheltic child. just told the coach.. sorry that's to much..
Parents really have to stay alert to what is going on at practice and games and make sure that it's still the best for their child and the goals they want to accomplish.. it's okay to take a break.. check out other teams and breath once in a while instead of being a weekend slave to the fields.. GOALS CAN CHANGE!
Remember parents have to pay for it. and take them to all the games and practices. Parents are incharge and should keep an open communitcation with the coaches and let them know how things are going. Report
played for fun, not competition. dd plays for fun too. Report
i did play some sports as a child but I wish I was more active Report
Some parents just don't have the ability to shuffle their kids from extracurricular activity to the next. And kids get burned out from too many activities. It's a nice idea, to allow your kids to take part in many activities, but I know many parents that have to limit each child to one activity. I wasn't into sports as a child, but I took several types of dance, piano, and baton twirling. I stuck to dance the longest and enjoyed it the most, but was glad to try many different activities. Report
I was very active in my childhood. I played several sports--softball, basketball and soccer. I also enjoyed swimming, and volleyball. I was on my HS team for softball and soccer. I don't think I specialized; but I know I was much better soccer player than softball. I think a child should be active and play several sports, (I don't have any children); if their parent's can afford it--then as the child gets older let him or her decide which sport they enjoy the most. Great for the body and the brain; not to mention wonderful socialization and teamwork skill building. Report
I played football for two years in high school--I wasn't a gifted athlete; I was a very talented musician, though.

My son, always bigger that most children his age, and an excellent athlete, played football, baseball, discus and shotput throwing, and practiced martial arts.

When he cracked a vertabrae during a high school football game, he quit sports and became a terrific drummer. Now, he gives his two daughters acces to many sports and activities. Report
I was a year-round competitive swimmer from the time I was 8 until into my college years. I very much regret not developing any talent in other sports and I wish I'd taken part in a sport that emphasized hand-eye coordination! I imagine that would have served me well. :)

My situation may be unique, but the lack of ventilation and poor upkeep of the pool I swam in through high school ended up giving a number of my teammates exercised-induced asthma and me chemically induced bronchitis. Coaches who thought we were trying to get out of finishing sets by asking to go outside to try to breathe freely didn't help either. I can't get near chlorine now without my lungs tightening and I now have permanent damage that has reduced my lung capacity.

I still love to swim and my love for swimming made it take that much longer to quit before I truly damaged myself. But I do wish I'd been a more well-rounded athlete, regardless. We did do weight training, some running, and other dryland exercises to supplement our swimming yardage, but it wasn't enough to truly give us year-round swimmers the benefits of not being specialized. Report
I've found my adult friends who focus on one sport also run the risk of mediocre as well as injury...cross training helps a lot and unfortunately some don't always see the value in it until they have problems. There's a lesson to mix it up for all of us! Report
My son participates in bowling, basketball, and track and field. Oh did I mention that he is in Special Olympics, where we don't have the screaming parents or the demanding coaches. We are there for only one thing, and one thing only, The athletes. Report
I didn't play youth sports. I didn't start participating in sports until high school. To my surprise, I found I was a good athlete. I wrestled, boxed, ran track, and played football. I received a scholarship to play college football. A number of kids in my neighborhood played youth sports. By the time these guys were in high school, most were burned-out on sports.

Today, I officiate high school football. Every once in a while I will do a youth football game. At the youth level, I am surprised by the large percentage of rabid parents and nasty coaches. No wonder kids get burned-out on sports at an early age.