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Neeru Jayanthi, MD,*†‡ Courtney Pinkham, BS,† Lara Dugas, PhD,† Brittany Patrick, MPH,§ and Cynthia LaBella, MD‖

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Abstract

Context:

Sports specialization is intense training in 1 sport while excluding others. Sports specialization in early to middle childhood has become increasingly common. While most experts agree that some degree of sports specialization is necessary to achieve elite levels, there is some debate as to whether such intense practice time must begin during early childhood and to the exclusion of other sports to maximize the potential for success. There is a concern that sports specialization before adolescence may be deleterious to a young athlete.

Evidence Acquisition:

PubMed and OVID were searched for English-language articles from 1990 to 2011 discussing sports specialization, expert athletes, or elite versus novice athletes, including original research articles, consensus opinions, and position statements.

Results:

For most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status. Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age. Sports specialization occurs along a continuum. Survey tools are being developed to identify where athletes fall along the spectrum of specialization.

Conclusion:

Some degree of sports specialization is necessary to develop elite-level skill development. However, for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success while minimizing injury, psychological stress, and burnout.