High School Sports Specialization Patterns of Current Division I Athletes
Post EG, Thein-Nissenbaum JM, Stiffler MR, Brooks MA, Bell DR. Sports Health. 2016 [Epub ahead of print]
Take Home Message: The majority of athletes participating in NCAA Division I sports reported that they were not highly specialized in that sport during high school.
Sport specialization or participation in a single sport is a growing trend in youth sports, and carries with it increased injury risk, potentially negative psychological effects, and lack of clear connection to athletic success. There is limited data on level of specialization and factors leading to specialization among collegiate athletes. Therefore, the authors surveyed current Division I athletes at a single institution across 9 sports to determine the level of sports specialization during high school, and to identify differences in specialization patterns between sports, sex, and factors effecting the decision to specialize. The athletes answered 3 questions regarding previous level of sports participation (previously described by Jayanthi et al.), which classified athletes as “low”, “moderate”, or “high” level of sport specialization from 9th through 12th grade. The researchers found increases in the prevalence of sports specialization for each subsequent year of high school. There were no differences between sport specialization rates in sex equivalent sports. Football athletes were found to be less likely to be highly specialized compared to non-football athletes. The most frequent reasons for deciding to specialize was enjoying the sport, the opportunity for scholarship, potential participation in college, and being the best at that sport. Influence of parents was reported as the most important factor is deciding to specialize by less than 10% of athletes.
Despite recommendations and consensus statements from various associations cautioning parents and athletes on the potentially negative consequences of sport specialization there continues to be a culture within youth sports that promotes the need for year-round training and specialization. This method is often thought to be a precursor for future success. The results of this study support the notion that sports specialization is not a requirement for athletic success. Additionally, delaying or not making the decision to specialize may remove stress and pressure that can be associated with choosing a sport to specialization. Interestingly, a limited number of athletes mentioned parental influence as the most important factor in deciding to specialize. This information contrasts the thought that parents are largely responsible for pushing their children to specialize. Though, the scale used to classify level of sport specialization has not been formally validated it has been reported in several previous studies, and appears to deliver an objective assessment of sport specialization. The results of this study are limited to included sports at a single institution; however, they provide a simple format that would be easily applied on a larger scale. At this time medical professionals should be educating parents, athletes, and youth sports organizations that there is not a need to specialize, and about the associated risks of choosing to participate in one sport.
Questions for Discussion: Is there a single question within the specialization survey that can produce similar results? Would you expect results to remain the same regardless of scholarship status, or would you expect scholarship athletes to report more specialization compared to non-scholarship athletes? Do you expect the results to be similar at various NCAA levels and/or at the professional level?
Written by: Adam Lake
Reviewed by: Jane McDevitt
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