Does Early Specialization Lead to Greater Success?

Early Specialist

Growing up and playing competitive hockey, my goal was always to obtain a college scholarship and maybe, just maybe, make it to that next level. So I did what any other talented young athlete would do: I listened to my well-meaning coaches and scouts and focused all of my energy on “my” sport at a young age. I thoroughly enjoyed playing hockey, and I was happy to do so two hours a day, five day a week year-round.

My story of early specialization is all too common in competitive athletics. A recent study by Post and colleagues found that the vast majority of Division I athletes who specialize early do so because:

    1. They enjoy that sport the most.
    2. They have an opportunity to earn a scholarship to play in college.
    3. They have a chance to be the best at that sport.

Only 9.9 percent of athletes said that parental influence most influenced their specialization decision.1

All of these reasons make perfect sense, but do athletes who specialize early actually have more success than multi-sport athletes?

According to the same study, the prevalence of highly specialized athletes (defined as an athlete who participates in year-round training of more than eight months per year, who chooses a single main sport, and who quits all other sports to focus on that single sport) increased significantly from freshman (16.9 percent) to senior year (41.1 percent) of high school. In a separate study conducted among high school athletes, 29.5 percent classified themselves as one-sport athletes and 36.4 percent were considered highly specialized in their chosen sport.2 Based on this information, there does not seem to be a significant difference between Division I athletes and the general high school athlete population with regards to specialization.

Furthermore, nearly 90 percent of 20163 and 20174 NFL draft picks played multiple sports during high school. In agreement with this trend, 100 percent of 2016 national college football award winners, including all 5 Heisman Trophy finalists, were not highly specialized or single-sport athletes in high school.5 Looking closer at the two teams who played in Super Bowl LIII, more than 90 percent of the players on both teams were multi-sport athletes in high school.6

The current evidence does not necessarily look favorable for the highly specialized athlete.

How Does Early Specialization Impact Risk of Injury?

To be successful, you need to be healthy, and the literature once again does not give favor to specialization.

Athletes with high competition volume, who participated in a club sport, or who were highly specialized had:

  • 2.08 times greater odds of reporting a previous lower extremity injury than those with low competition volume
  • 1.50 times greater odds than those with no club sport participation
  • 2.58 times greater odds compared to those with low specialization7

Building upon this information, another study found that highly specialized athletes were more likely to report a previous injury of any kind or an overuse injury in the previous year compared with athletes in the low specialization group. Athletes who played their primary sport more than eight months of the year were 1.68 times more likely to report an upper extremity overuse injury or 1.66 times more likely to sustain a lower extremity overuse injury.8 When looking at serious overuse injuries, highly specialized athletes were 2.38 times more likely than multi-sport athletes.9

What About the Psychological Impact of Early Specialization?

One psychological effect of early specialization is an increased level of dropout in highly specialized athletes.

Among ice hockey players, those who began off-ice training earlier and invested a larger number of hours training at a younger age were more likely to drop out of their sport. One study followed hockey players who started playing at 5 years old and found that the athletes who ended up dropping out began off-ice training at 11.75 years old in comparison to 13.8 years old in those who continued playing.10 Additionally, those who continued playing their sport invested an average of 6.8 hours to off-ice training versus 107 hours per year in the dropout group.11

Dropout can occur for any number of reasons, from psychological to physical factors. Studies looking into the reasoning behind burnout in competitive tennis players found burned-out players had less input into training and sport-related decisions and practiced fewer days with decreased motivation.12 While sport specialization has not necessarily been linked to burnout, the underlying stressors related to the early and highly specialized athlete mimic those reasons for dropout.

What Can Athletes, Coaches, Parents, and Healthcare Providers Do?

  1. Take a break. Actually take the off-season off and find another sport or passion during this time.
  2. Develop overall athleticism. There’s a reason multi-sport athletes are generally more successful at higher levels. They have been exposed to different movements and stresses, which their primary sport does not provide.
  3. Listen to your body and your mind. Are you feeling burnt out or are you suffering from a nagging injury? Take the time to have these factors addressed. See a physical therapist, a sports psychologist, or the appropriate medical professional.
  4. Have fun! Sports are meant to be a positive influence on your life, not a physical or mental drain.

We as a culture need to make a change in how youth and competitive sports are positioned. The highly specialized athlete is not necessarily more successful, is more likely to sustain an overuse or serious injury, and demonstrates the psychological profile of those who drop-out of their sport. We need to embrace the need for varying experiences and movement activities. The literature is fairly definitive, and we need to push our children, athletes, and coaches to focus on the aspect of enjoying their athletic career and developing overall athleticism during this timeframe.

  1. Post, E. G., Thein-Nissenbaum, J. M., Stiffler, M. R., Brooks, M. A., Bell, D. R., Sanfilippo, J. L., et al. (2017). High school sport specialization patterns of current Division I athletes. Sports Health, 9(2): 148–153.
  2. Bell, D. R., Post, E. G., Trigsted, S. M., Hetzel, S., McGuine, T. A., & Brooks, M. A. (2016). Prevalence of sport specialization in high school athletics: a 1-year observational study. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(6): 1469–74.
  3. Branstad, M. (2016). 88.5% 2016 NFL Draft picks played multiple sports in high school. Retrieved from
  4. Spilbeler, B. (2017). Tracking Football finds 88% of 2017 NFL Draft picks were multiple sport athletes in high school. Retrieved from
  5. Spilbeler, B. (2017). Tracking Football finds 88% of 2017 NFL Draft picks were multiple sport athletes in high school. Retrieved from
  6. Coach & (2019). More than 90% of Super Bowl LIII players were multisport athletes. Retrieved from
  7. Post, E. G., Bell, D. R., Trigsted, S. M., Pfaller, A. Y., Hetzel, S. J., Brooks, M. A., & McGuine, T. A. (2017). Association of competition volume, club sports, and sport specialization with sex and lower extremity injury history in high school athletes. Sports Health, 9(6): 518–523.
  8. Post, E. G., Trigsted, S. M., Riekena, J. W., Hetzel, S., McGuine, T. A., Brooks, M. A., & Bell, D. R. (2017). The association of sport specialization and training volume with injury history in youth athletes. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(6): 1405–1412.
  9. Post, E. G., Bell, D. R., Trigsted, S. M., Pfaller, A. Y., Hetzel, S. J., Brooks, M. A., & McGuine, T. A. (2017). Association of competition volume, club sports, and sport specialization with sex and lower extremity injury history in high school athletes. Sports Health, 9(6): 518–523.
  10. Jayanthi, N., Dugas, L., Fischer, D., Pasulka, J., & LaBella, C. (2014). Risks of intense, specialized training and growth for injury in young athletes: a clinical evaluation. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(7): 611.
  11. Jayanthi, N., Pinkha, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2012). Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health, 5(3): 251–257.
  12. Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S., Loehr, J. (1997). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: III. Individual differences in the burnout experience. Sport Psychologist, 11(3): 257–276.