Overspecialization in Youth Sports: The Risks and Rights of Young Athletes (Part I)

The culture of youth sports has changed dramatically in recent years.  Instead of playing a variety of casual neighborhood games with little adult supervision, it is now the norm for young athletes to specialize in a favored sport and train like adults at younger ages under the control of parents, trainers and coaches.  The intensive training and competition is typically year-round.   This shift can largely be attributed to earlier scouting and recruitment by college programs.  And the focus of some parents who view early specialization as an investment toward an athletic scholarship.  Some colleges have started to follow athletes in middle school and early high school.  With substantial college scholarships on the line, children are concentrating on one sport and competing in too structured a manner too early in life.

Sport specialization at a young age, however, has proven to be unsafe and counterproductive especially when the exclusivity and intensity of training and competing prohibits young athletes from proper recovery and impedes developing skills in other athletic endeavors.  Participating and learning skills in other sports leads to neuromuscular adaptations that enhance overall athleticism and protect against injury

Schools, athletic organizations, coaches, and trainers, have the general responsibility to exercise reasonable care to protect the health and safety of their young athletes.   Courts may declare them negligent and responsible to pay compensation for the injuries suffered by their early specializers.

Sport Specialization and Increased Risk of Injury

A growing body of sports science has shown that young athletes who train intensively in a single sport have a higher risk of stress fractures and overuse injuries compared to multi-sport athletes.  Children are developmentally immature and may be less able to tolerate physical stress.

In a study led by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, director of sports medicine at the Loyola University Medical Center, 1,206 athletes from the age of 8 to 18 were observed between 2010 and 2013. Nearly a third of the athletes specialized in a sport for at east eight months a year and another third were not far behind.  The kids who were highly specialized had a 36 per cent increased risk of suffering serious overuse injury even when age and the total number of weekly hours spent playing sports were controlled.

The study also found that young athletes were more prone to injury if they spent twice as much time playing organized sports as they spent in unorganized free play (“pick up games”).  Also, the kids in the study who suffered serious overuse injuries spent an average of 21 hours per week in total physical activity, including an average of 13 hours in organized sports.  In contrast, the kids who were not injured only spent 17.6 hours a week in total physical activity, including 9.4 hours in organized sports.

The overuse injuries recorded included stress fractures in the back or limbs, elbow ligament injuries, and damage to cartilage and underlying bone.  These types of injuries are serious enough to result in significant loss of playing time and even early retirement from sports.  Early sports specialization tends to ultimately lead to a lesser level of athletic success.

Other studies have also confirmed that, aside from being at risk for physical injuries, athletes who specialize too soon were also at risk for emotional and social problems.  Highly specialized young athletes may develop socially maladaptive behavior because they are normally isolated from their peers and have altered family relationships.  They may become overdependent on parents and coaches and may feel that they have lost control of their lives.  Early specializers may also experience burnout—the young athlete withdraws from the previously enjoyable sport due to chronic stress.    

With growing evidence against early sports specialization, coaches and trainers should avoid it and encourage young athletes to diversify and sample multiple sports at least until puberty.  Sampling different sports may protect against sport attrition by limiting the incidence of injuries and giving children the chance to view sports as fun and enjoyable early on.  Recent studies have also shown that adolescents who are involved in a variety of activities have higher GPAs and maintain better peer relationships than those who participated in fewer activities.

Coaches and trainers should also ensure that the young athlete gets sufficient periods of rest.  Children should have at least three months of rest from training and competition each year to allow them to recover physically and psychologically. They are also advised to have at least one to two days of rest per week.

Legal Duty of Schools, Athletic Organizations, Coaches and Trainers

Schools, sports organizations, coaches and athletic trainers have varying duties to safeguard the safety and health of their young athletes.  If an athlete is injured as a result of a breach of those duties, the injured athlete may be entitled to compensation on the basis of negligence.

Negligence lawsuits are founded on the principle that persons who are harmed as the result of the carelessness of others or their failure to carry out responsibilities properly must be compensated.

In Part II of this article, we will look further into the duty of care owed by schools and sports professionals to their young athletes and cases where compensation was awarded to injured athletes.