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Shelby Waldron, J.D. DeFreese, Brian Pietrosimone, Johna Register-Mihalik and Nikki Barczak

There is a trend towards sport specialization (high intensity, year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports) in American youth organized sport, as evident in the increasing number of elite youth competitions including Junior Olympics and Amateur Athletic Union ( Wiersma

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Maureen M. Smith

This article provides a historical overview of the practice of early sport specialization, primarily in the United States. Sport specialization as practiced by young athletes has been a common occurrence in several individual sports for more than 60 years. More recently, focusing on one sport has gained traction as common practice for young athletes involved in team sports. Sport specialization as a topic of research inquiry has been examined by various disciplines in kinesiology to determine the efficacy of the practice, the physiological effects, and the advantages and disadvantages, as well as to offer possible solutions to the drawbacks associated with sport specialization. Popular press outlets, including newspapers, books, magazines, and online sources, have also joined the debate over the merits of sport specialization.

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Peter A. Hastie

This paper examines the literature within sport pedagogy that addresses early sport specialization. The paper is presented in two sections. First, research on a number of common sense assumptions about early specialization is examined from a pedagogical perspective: (a) Is limiting youths’ experiences to a single sport the best path to elite status? (b) Do early specializers receive better coaching? (c) Do coaches of early specializers have better sport content knowledge? (d) Do coaches of early specializers have better planning behaviors? (e) Do instructional climates differ between specialized and diversified coaching settings? Second, a research agenda from a pedagogical perspective is proposed for answering the questions posed in the first section, as well as the various assessments and protocols that would allow for these questions to be answered.

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Thelma S. Horn

One of the primary dilemmas surrounding the topic of early sport specialization is whether the practice develops talent or creates long-term psychological problems. The purpose of this paper is to discuss this issue using psychosocial and developmental frameworks. This review begins with an overview of several developmentallybased constructs (e.g., biological maturation, perceived competence, body image, self-identity, motivational orientation) that are relevant to the sport domain. These developmental progressions are then used to address some potential implications for children who begin intensive training and competition at an early age. Next, some socioenvironmental factors are explored, with specific links made to the early sport specialization process. Finally, the paper ends with four recommendations for future research on the topic.

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Lenny D. Wiersma

Of growing concern to sport researchers is the practice of youth sport athletes specializing in sport at a young age. Sport specialization is characterized by year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sport or nonsport activities. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the potential benefits of specialized sport at an early age in light of the potential risks associated with specialized participation. Three areas of consideration are discussed, including motor skill acquisition and performance, potential sociological consequences, and psychological concerns related to high-intensity training of young athletes. Finally, recommendations for further research and practical considerations are suggested for deciding the appropriateness of specialized sport in the training and development of youth sport athletes.

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Cesar R. Torres

In contemporary sport, it is common to see children initiating their specialization at ever younger ages with the hope that this early start will assist them in making the elite ranks at a later age. The growing acceptance of early sport specialization has led to equally growing concerns among researchers. Clearly, as this thematic volume attests, early sport specialization is a controversial phenomenon. Sport philosophers have started to study the challenging issues related to early sport specialization and thus there is emerging literature addressing such issues. This paper reviews the sport philosophy literature touching on early sport specialization and focuses on some fundamental philosophical issues raised by early sport specialization. These issues are related to the right of children to an open future, dangerous sports, competition and coaching, and doping and genetic enhancements. The paper concludes with a brief commentary on the relevance of these issues for policy making.

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Jacqueline D. Goodway and Leah E. Robinson

This commentary examines the argument for early sport specialization versus sport sampling from a physical growth and motor development perspective. Three developmental frameworks are examined (Mountain of Motor Development, Developmental Model of Sport Participation, Spirals of Engagement Trajectory model) to make the case that a broad base of fundamental motor skill competence is necessary in the early years before sport specialization in the adolescent years. Early sport specialization is criticized from the standpoint of increased risk for overuse injury, concerns about long-term growth, and the fact that early and intense practice schedules often do not differentiate elite versus nonelite athletes. A strong argument is made for early sport sampling to acquire a broad base of fundamental motor skills to apply to different sports, and to allow physical maturity to develop before specializing in sport. Such an approach also better equips a child to be active across the lifespan.

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Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch

The present study addressed the critical question of whether or not sport specialization is necessary for future collegiate participation. Male and female collegiate student-athletes were studied using a mixed method approach (N = 469). Athletes were studied using the Youth Sport Participation Questionnaire. The data obtained from the quantitative items and open-ended survey items were analyzed, triangulated, and summarized. On average, athletes did not specialize in sport until high school (M = 15.47 ± 3.49 years). Comparisons were made between participants using factorial ANOVAs based on gender, sport type and NCAA Division. Two significant first order interactions were noted between: (1) gender and sport type and (2) NCAA Division and sport type (p < .05). Specifically, males and females from individual sports specialized earlier than their counterparts from team sports. The individual sport participants from both Divisions I and III specialized sooner than team sport participants from both divisions. Three main effects also existed for gender, NCAA Division and sport type (p < .05). The perceptions and experiences of student-athletes based were evidence that specializing in sport may not be necessary, despite the increased sense of competition in youth sports. Practical implications will be provided for coaches and youth sport professionals.

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Randon Hall, Kim Barber Foss, Timothy E. Hewett and Gregory D. Myer

Objectives:

To determine if sport specialization increases the risk of anterior knee pain in adolescent female athletes.

Design:

Retrospective cohort epidemiology study.

Methods:

Female basketball, soccer, and volleyball players (N = 546) were recruited from a single county public school district in Kentucky consisting of 5 middle schools and 4 high schools. A total of 357 multisport and 189 single-sport (66 basketball, 57 soccer, and 66 volleyball) athlete subjects were included due to their diagnosis of patellofemoral pain (PFP) on physical exam. Testing consisted of a standardized history and physician-administered physical examination to determine the presence of PFP. This study compared self-reported multisport athletes with sport-specialized athletes participating in only 1 sport. The sports-participation data were normalized by sport season, with each sport accounting for 1 season of exposure. Incidence rate ratios and 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated and used to determine significant differences between athletes who specialized in sport in early youth and multisport athletes.

Results:

Specialization in a single sport increased the relative risk of PFP incidence 1.5-fold (95% CI 1.0−2.2, P = .038) for cumulative PFP diagnoses. Specific diagnoses such as Sinding Larsen Johansson/patellar tendinopathy (95% CI 1.5−10.1, P = .005) and Osgood Schlatter disease (95% CI 1.5−10.1, P = .005) demonstrated a 4-fold greater relative risk in single-sport compared with multisport athletes. Incidence of other specific PFP diagnoses such as fat pad, plica, trauma, pes anserine bursitis, and iliotibial-band tendonitis was not different between single-sport and multisport participants (P > .05).

Conclusion:

Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee-pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter, Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared with multisport athletes.

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Adam D.G. Baxter-Jones

In the early 1900s it was thought that exercise directly stimulated growth; however, by the end of the century it was suggested that young athletes were selected based on inherited physical attributes that enhanced performance success. In this paper, the physical attributes and normal patterns of growth of young athletes, both competitive and recreational, are discussed. Specifically, the paper addresses the question, Are young athletes born with physical attributes suited to a sport or does sport training produce these physical attributes? Variability in the tempo and timing of normal growth and development is addressed, and its relevance and influence on youth talent identification is discussed. This is pertinent in today’s context of sport specialization at relatively young ages. Regular physical training is only one of many factors that could affect child growth; however, distinguishing influences of training programs on growth from those associated with normal growth and development is problematic.