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Potential Barriers to Training- Early Sports Specialization


As a strength and conditioning coaching company, one of the potential barriers we most often face for the youth population is early sports specialization. A growing concern for children and adolescents is the injury risks associated with excessive exposure to the specific sport. 


Early sport specialization refers to the engagement in intensive year-round training within a single sport and likely limits the child’s exposure to a breadth of sporting activities. Certain sports traditionally favor early specialization (i.e., gymnastics or figure skating) because of the relative advantage for a young athlete to perform extreme specialized posturing and rotation of the torso and extremities(Lloyd et al., 2015). 


However, young athletes should also be engaged with an integrative strength and conditioning program focused on diversifying motor skill development and enhancing muscle strength to maximize performance and reduce their relative risk of injury(Lloyd et al., 2015). Unfortunately, an increasing number of sports are focusing on exposing children to high levels of formalized sports training at younger ages, even in sports typically classified as late specialization sports (e.g., football and rugby) without supportive training to enhance motor skill competency.


           A review from Lloyd et al. (2015) indicated that youth who specialize early in a sport are at an increased risk of overtraining, overuse injury, and burnout (i.e., stress-induced withdrawal). Talented youth selected for a sporting team during late adolescence but have not engaged in age-appropriate conditioning during their childhood years are more likely to present with poor fundamental movement skills. For example, the muscle-loading patterns associated with youth soccer can lead to alterations in functional hamstrings to quadriceps strength ratios about the knee, and that untrained young soccer players presented with greater quadriceps dominance than those who have participated in formalized resistance training.


We have experienced the proportion of acute versus overuse injuries in youth is approximately 50:50; however, we feared that overuse injuries are rising. Conditions such as patellofemoral pain, Osgood– Schlatter disease, calcaneal apophysitis, little league elbow and little league shoulder, spondylolysis, and osteochondritis dissecans are all common overuse injuries seen in children and adolescents subject to repetitive sports training (Lloyd et al., 2015).


Potential Solutions to the Problem


We believe that encouraging youth to participate in various sports during their growing years can help them develop more diverse motor skills. Sports specialization in youth may underlie reduced diversity in motor skill proficiency as young athletes focus on sport-specific skills while ignoring motor skills developed through a diversified participation portfolio.


 Lloyd et al. (2015) suggested that specialized athletes involved in the intense competition should be allowed sufficient recovery time between repeated bouts of the same day. Before prolonged competitions, athletes can also benefit from limiting intense training 48 hours before the competition. Lloyd et al. (2015) review the current evidence and encourage youth to engage in preparatory INT (Integrative neuromuscular training) before initiating competitive sports participation. Integrative neuromuscular training includes general (e.g., strength-building exercises) and specific (e.g., exercises targeted to address motor control deficits) conditioning activities designed to enhance health- and skill-related related fitness. In terms of physical conditioning, youth sports practice and games may not enable the young athlete to accumulate the recommended amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, as a large proportion of time in practice (and even competition) can be spent in sedentary or low-intensity physical activities(Lloyd et al., 2015).  


Bompa and Buzzichelli (2019) suggested a young athlete’s sport participation should evolve out of preparatory conditioning and instructional practice sessions that address individual deficits and prepare their motor systems for the demands of practice and competition. 


Lloyd et al. (2015) suggested that adequately designed INT implemented in preseason and off-season periods can be especially beneficial to athletes who have specialized in sports and may not have had adequate exposure to developmental motor skill activities. Integrative neuromuscular training provides supportive conditioning that can reduce injury risk and enhance performance in all athletes. In athletes, success at young ages does not predict long-term success, and in some cases, early sport specialization may limit the potential to achieve elite status. Lloyd et al., (2015) review data provide support to the concept of early sports diversification and recognizes that while deliberate play and practice and formalized sports training is certainly necessary for success in sports, it is not likely sufficient to achieve maximum performance with reduced injury risk without the integration of appropriate long-term athletic training programs.



Bompa, T. O., & Buzzichelli, C. (2019). Periodization: Theory and methodology of training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Lloyd, R. S., Oliver, J. L., Faigenbaum, A. D., Howard, R., Williams, C. A., Best, T. M., … Myer, G. D. (2015). Long-term athletic development, part 2. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(5), 1451–1464.

The journal of strength and conditioning research


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