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Study Gauges Single-Sport Specialization Trends Among NCAA Athletes

Though single-sport specialization increases throughout high school, those interested in pursuing an athletic career in college don't necessarily need to follow that route, suggests a study published online in the journal Sports Health earlier this month.

The study lands amid ongoing debate about the sports pathways that serve athletes best, minimizing their risk of burning out and ending a promising career too early.

The study's authors had 343 current athletes across nine sports at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—115 females and 228males—complete a specialization questionnaire to gauge which sports they participated in during high school. They also asked each athlete to name the most important factor that led them to specialize in the sport they're playing in college, and received 320 responses to that question.

According to the results of the questionnaire, single-sport specialization increased progressively through each grade in high school. Among the 343 Badger athletes surveyed, only 58 specialized in one sport as high school freshmen, while 141 did so as seniors. For sports that both genders participate in—namely, basketball, golf, ice hockey, soccer, and tennis—the authors found "no detectable difference in degree of specialization between sexes at any grade level."

In each grade, football players were less likely to specialize solely in football than athletes in other sports, perhaps in part because football season is limited primarily to the fall. High school football players thus have the opportunity to participate in other sports in the winter and spring, unlike students who participate in sports that can be year-round, such as track and field.

When researchers examined the most important factors that led athletes to specialize in a given sport, they found enjoyment of the sport was the top response, followed by the opportunity to earn a college scholarship, and being the best at the sport. Thirty-four athletes said parental influence was the most important factor that swayed them to specialize in their given sport.

The authors, noting the "increased potential for injury, psychological burnout, and sport dropout" among athletes who specialize early, suggested "the vast majority of athletes who choose to specialize early increase their risk of a negative outcome without substantially increasing their chances of participating at the collegiate or professional levels."

Because collegiate athletes were being asked to remember details from as far back as their freshman year of high school, the authors noted recall bias as a limitation of this study. They also didn't include injury risk or history in the questionnaire, which meant they weren't able to determine how single-sport specialization during high school affected injuries in college.

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