Early Youth Specialization and Over Training – What Every Parent Should Know

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happy chid have fun on swimming pool

Back to school time means that it will be time for fall sports season soon! But did you know that it’s possible for young kids to overtrain?  This was not something that I knew, which is why I’m happy that Sarah Walls, personal trainer and owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc, has the 411 for us parents!

Kids around the country are playing organized sports more than ever today. In fact, The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) reports that youth in the country participating in sports went from around 18 million in 1987 to 60 million in 2008. While that’s good news, because of the many benefits that can be gained from keeping them active, there is also a downside that health professionals are beginning to caution parents about – early specialization and overtraining, both of which can become problematic and become detrimental for young athletes.

“There is this notion today that people think kids should only be focused on one sport and train like crazy to become good at it,” explains Coach Sarah Walls, personal trainer and owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc., who is also the strength and conditioning coach for WNBA’s Washington Mystics. “Yet more and more research is showing that at a young age it’s not wise to specialize and risk overtraining. Kids can become better athletes by engaging in a variety of sports.”

In research published in the journal Sports Health, researchers report that sport specialization, which is training in one sport to the exclusion of others, has become increasingly common in young athletes. They advise that sport specialization before the child has reached adolescence may be detrimental, because there is a higher injury rate, increased psychological stress, and it leads to quitting sports at an early age. Further, their research reports that there is no evidence that intense training and specialization at a young age are necessary to achieve elite status.

Here’s what Walls shares with the parents of the young athletes who she works with:

  • Great athletes are often the product of well-rounded physical development (kids playing lots of different sports and rotating each season).
  • Children involved in sports that are single-sided (like baseball and golf, as examples) should be balancing out the asymmetries that develop by engaging in other sports or a strength/conditioning program designed with those considerations.
  • Young athletes who specialize in one sport too early (before age 15) can be/are prone to overuse injuries.
  • If a child is experiencing regular aches and pains, they should be given a break from the activity and encouraged to engage in play or a different sport entirely.
  • Children are experiencing injuries that previously were only seen in adults – for example ligament tears and tendonitis.
  • Early sport specialization problems are compounded by the sedentary and desk-bound nature of our society. This leads to further movement pattern dysfunction, muscle imbalances and, eventually, even more injuries.
  • Avoid allowing your child to specialize in one sport before age 15. Trust that well-rounded physical development through a variety of sports and activities will serve your child’s sporting ability and health over time. Ensure your child is maintaining a balanced body by having him/her participate in a sports conditioning program and/or a variety of sports and activities.

“Once parents know the risks of early specialization and overuse injury risks, they usually encourage their child to diversify and cross train,” added Coach Walls. “The problem is that most parents are not aware of these risks. They have been led to believe that their child needs to pick a sport at the age of five and stick with it. When this happens, many kids experience overuse injuries, and they end up being burned out and leaving the sport all together by the time they reach adolescence.”

The NSCA reports that the growth cartilage in children is vulnerable to the stress of repeated microtraumas, which leads to injuries that may be long-lasting. Examples include “Little League elbow.” Some of the symptoms of overtraining include early fatigue during workouts, decreased strength or coordination, faster heart rate with less effort, lower resistance to common illnesses, frequent colds, frequent aches and pains, ongoing muscle soreness, lack of motivation, and fear of competition.

Sarah Walls has over 15 years experience in coaching and personal training. Owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc, founded in 2007, she offers coaching to develop athletes, adult programs, team training, online coaching, and more. She is also the strength and conditioning coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and has over eight years of experience working as an NCAA D1 strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer. To learn more, visit the site: www.saptstrength.com.

SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc.

Located in Fairfax, Virginia, SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc. is a high performance training club that specializes in helping to develop athletes of all ages. They offer athletic training programs for youth, college students, and amateurs. The company was founded in 2007 by Sarah Walls, a professional strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer with NCAA D1 experience, who is the strength and conditioning coach for the WNBA Washington Mystics team. To learn more, visit the site: www.saptstrength.com.


  1. says

    Indeed it is important for the kids to have their own activities. I am not yet a mom yet but I am already thinking of how will my future kids be like. I just want them to be aware of what they want to do and I will support it. I want them to enjoy while they are young and at the same time be able to have a specific field to be involved too.

  2. says

    I always taught my kids when they were growing up to try different sports, especially when they were really young. that way they could experience everything and then later when they become teenager they can dedicate themselves to one sport or no sports at, but it being their decision. I think coaches and some parents push kids too much to fast when it comes to sports and that is not good at all.

  3. Victoria Heckstall says

    We need to encourage our kids to join in any variety of sports. For they to boost their strength, to enhance their capability on doing well, to learn how to socialize and associate to other and to be a well rounded athlete.

  4. Annemarie LeBlanc says

    My sons were into baseball when they were young. Training and practice sessions zapped them of their energy and it came to a point that it was affecting their academics. I had to step in and put a limit to their extra curricular activities.

  5. Debra Hawkins says

    I can definitely see how this is a problem! Things get competitive, fast , around here! Even at my daughter’s young age!

  6. says

    I always wondered why hubby insisted on having the kids participate in a variety of sports and now it makes sense. I never knew about problems related to sport specialization.

  7. says

    I’m glad to hear they shouldn’t specialize in one sport before age 15. I always feel like I need to get them focused in one area, but I’d like them to try a variety of sports to find out what they enjoy the most!

  8. says

    My son is in middle school and he gets to do a variety of sports. Last year he did soccer, basketball, and track. In the past, he also did a kids bowling league, swimming, and martial arts. I believe in allowing him to be a well-rounded athlete.

  9. says

    I can definitely how it would be helpful to allow kids to try a number of different sports. Making sure they have balanced physical development is important.

  10. says

    I feel many parents are to blame for children overtraining! Kids should be able to enjoy playing sports and not be pushed or pressured, especially to the point that it causes damage.

  11. Pam says

    My kids always did a variety of activities, but a lot of their friends focused on one sport even at a young age. I didn’t realize kids could overtrain!

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