Opinion: The Debate of Youth Sports Specialization


Image Credit: soccerwire

Noah Cahill, Sports Editor

“Of the 16 million children and teens who participate in organized sports each year, about 27% are involved in only one sport” according to the National Council of Youth Sports. This poses the question: Is specializing in one sport at a young age good or bad? I’ve experienced the benefits and drawbacks of doing this with soccer and I’d like to explore both sides of the argument a little more.

Specializing in one sport at a young age can increase the chances of playing at the next level. This is applicable to most sports, but let’s take soccer for example. Among the many levels of youth soccer, MLSNext academies sit at the top regarding college recruitment. Right below them sits the National League and ECNL players. Players on these teams will practice and play matches year-round. On the other hand, players who only play for their high school team or a recreational league will almost never get recruited. With such a competitive process, playing on a club team is almost a necessity.

Michigan Jaguars FC player and my fellow teammate Kade Blake states how “when it comes down to college I have more options and better ways I can succeed due to playing the sport my entire life,” and doing so for the whole year “always has me focused on getting better.” Specializing also promotes the nature of competition. By staying on one team for a long time, a player watches their team improve and builds valuable friendships in the process. To speak to my experience, the time I spent with my club team helped me make great strides as a player that I likely would not have made had I not played so much. I also built some long-lasting friendships with the guys that I spent so many years with on the field.

However, specializing in one sport at a young age can have negative physical and mental impacts. U of D athletic trainer Eric Schwab states that from his experience, he tends “to see more injuries in athletes that only do one sport and only train for that specific sport, as opposed to the multi-sport athletes.” He adds that these are often “overuse injuries, such as tendonitis of knees and shoulders, muscle strains, and just overall body fatigue that can lead to serious injuries like ACL tears and labrum issues in the shoulders.”

I am all too familiar with this side of specialization. After remaining completely healthy for my first few years of club soccer, I fractured my foot as a sophomore and suffered a stress reaction in my lower back as a junior. Both injuries kept me out for extended periods of time, and the latter lingers to this day. During my senior year, I dealt with continued muscular problems in my lower back, as well as inflammation around the iliac crest. The doctor chalked up all these injuries largely to overuse.

When it comes to mental impacts, overtraining in one sport can lead to setting unrealistic expectations and burning out. When a player puts so much pressure on themselves to improve and get to the next level, they may lose the love for the sport that brought them there in the first place. I felt burned out many times throughout my career, especially during my senior year. After playing for so long and enduring so many injuries, I lost some of my passion for the sport. While my team’s exit from playoffs was a tough finish to my youth soccer career, it also lifted a weight off my shoulders.

One’s stance on this issue is ultimately determined by priorities. If one aspires to play in college or professionally, they will likely need to specialize early to develop their game and become successful. Once again, this is not always the case, but the numbers support the fact that most sports require this type of commitment. On the other side, one must be willing to face the physical and mental challenges that come with specialization. To paraphrase the old adage, when it comes to deciding on whether or not to specialize in sports, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how (much) you play the game.