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Research Debunks Importance of Single-Sport Specialization for Youths

Single-sport specialization could end up doing more harm than good for youth athletes in the long run, suggests a new research brief from the University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative.

The brief, authored on behalf of the Aspen Institute's Project Play, incorporates findings from more than 50 research papers, reviews, and book chapters about the development of youth athletes. It sought to weigh the pros and cons of different methods of youth-athlete development, from single-sport specialization to "early sampling."

Children who choose to specialize in a single sport from a young age do experience certain benefits, according to past research, particularly if they're hoping to maximize their present chances of athletic success. Michael Sagas, the author of the brief and the chair of the university's department of tourism, recreation, and sport management, gives the example of single-sport specialization making sense for a coach who aims to win the 12-year-old baseball national championship.

Single-sport specialization also presents some glaring drawbacks, however, ranging from increased burnout, social isolation, physiological imbalances, higher rates of injury, and less interest in continued participation in athletics as an adult. The brief highlights a study presented earlier this year which found that participation in a variety of sports may protect against injury in youth athletes.

When it comes to early sampling, or trying out multiple different sports early in a child's athletic career, research suggests that it's tied to longer playing careers, increased motivation, and an ability to "transfer motor and psychological skills to other sports," according to the brief. Essentially, something like cardiovascular fitness that's developed while playing one sport can prove transferable to other sports.

The brief also addresses the popular "10,000-hour rule," which suggests that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to achieve mastery in a particular domain. While research suggests a clear corollary between an athlete's practice time and elite performance in a sport, there's little research that supports the idea of 10,000 hours of practice being the key threshold.

According to Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein and his new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, top athletes in basketball and field hockey reached elite performance in roughly 4,000 hours of practice time, the brief says.

And thus, given the "extremely complex nature of talent development," single-sport specialization is often "a problematic approach to developing youth athletes in the United States," wrote Sagas.

Below, at a Project Play panel earlier this month, Epstein discusses major findings from his new book in relation to youth athletes.

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