One of the most common debates among sports agents dedicated to talent training has to do with the convenience of young athletes’ early specialisation. Although there are not many scientific studies that provide clear hints about the best strategy, it seems that an early specialisation might increase the probability of suffering burnout and multiplying injury frequency due to chronic fatigue or overuse.1 However, still, less has been studied on how early specialisation by young athletes can influence their following professional career.
A recent research2 has analysed how early the specialisation or the practice of several sports affects the propensity for injury and the sport performance in basketball players from the National Basketball Association (NBA). The study, published in 2018, in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, was based on the analysis of 237 players selected in the first round of the NBA draft between the 2008 and 2015 seasons. The following data were collected from each of the players: participation in secondary school sport, serious injuries suffered during their career in the NBA, the percentage of games played in the NBA and whether the player was still active in the NBA. The players that participated during secondary school in several sports apart from basketball were classified as multisport athletes (n=36) and were compared with the players that only played basketball (n=201).
The results showed that:
- The multisport athletes played a significantly higher number of games (78.4% vs 72.8%, P<0.001).
- The multisport athletes had fewer probabilities of suffering a serious injury along with their sports career (25% vs 43%, P<0.03).
- A higher percentage of multisport players were active at the moment the data was collected, which indicates higher longevity in the NBA (94% vs 81%, P<0.03).
The results suggest that despite only 15% of the analysed players participated in more than one sport during secondary school, having a multisport training background could increase the number of matches that players play, reduce the probability of suffering a serious injury, and lengthen the sports career of the athletes. However, the low percentage of players who based their sports training on a varied practice versus those who went for early specialisation is really outstanding.
Consequently, it seems that early specialisation can pose significant risks to the health of athletes and it could also compromise their following professional success. In any case, much more research which allows understanding the convenience or not of early specialisation in sport is needed. Apart from increasing the size of the sample, it should be studied in different sports and in countries that have different sports cultures. It should also be taken into account not only those athletes that reach high level, but also the immense majority of players that do not achieve it. According to data collected by the Spanish Football Federation for the 2016/2017 season, only 1 out of 2,500 players with a federative license will get to play in the First Division. The attention of researchers and sports agents should be paid above all to these boys and girls.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Bell DR, Post EG, Biese K, et al. Sport Specialization and Risk of Overuse Injuries: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2018; 142(3):e20180657
2 Rugg C, Kadoor A, Feeley, BT and Pandya NK. The effects of playing multiple high school on National Basketball Association Players’ propensity for injury and athletic performance. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018; 46(2): 402-408.