Balancing Intensive Training in Young Athletes with Sports Diversification

Posted on Healthcare By Dr. Jaime Figueroa Conde - Published on 2018-05-07

Sports Injuries and Sports Medicine

Over the past few decades, the landscape of young athletes has significantly changed. The adolescents who take part in sports
activities may find the sport enjoyable while obtaining its many potential benefits. Sports activities not only boost self-esteem but also promote leadership qualities and associations amongst fellow team members. However, the standards of youth sports competitions have certainly changed. It has led to causing more competitive dealings at a young age including sports specialization and specific training. The seasons are getting longer and the children are signing up for organized club sports that perform and contend year-around. This is why Sports Medicine and Sports Doctor has now become a necessity.
The pressure from the parents, coaches, and teammates to pick a particular sport and specialize early is making the young athletes prone towards critical injuries including its adverse effects on the mind.
The purpose of this sports article is to put light on different opinions regarding sports specialization and early sports specialization. Moreover, we will discuss its effect on the performance of adolescent athletes, along with the training modules, overtraining, overuse injuries, and burnout in them.

Let’s go to the very beginning:

The present world scenario is that you will hardly find a child who plays multiple sports. In the United States itself, adolescents participating in organized sports have increased from 19 million in 1989 to 75 million in 2017. Over the years, youth sports have changed radically, with a greater focus on organized sports. It is less common to see a group of young children from a neighborhood congregating to play any sport without the influence of an adult. The norm has become for the adolescents to take part in organized sports driven by parents and coaches. The ‘multisportathlete’ is slowly becoming a thing of the past and this has raised some big questions – is early sports specialization the best way to develop adolescent athletes or it should be sports diversification? To answer this question, you should know what exactly sports specialization is.

What is sports specialization and diversification?

Sports specialization can be defined as the rigorous year-round training in a particular sport, keeping other sports at
bay. The measure of sports specialization can be classified as low, medium or high. Well, it will depend on whether the athlete –
-Chooses a particular (main) sport

-Participates in that one particular sport for more than eight months

-Focuses on the main sport by quitting all other sports

Sports diversification, on the other hand, is the athlete’s participation in multiple sports and activities through which he/she develops multilateral social, physical, and psychological skills.

Early sport specialization:

We will focus on the certain parameters to consider with early sports specialization.Participating in sports at a very young age provides many benefits such as the development of lifelong physical activity skills, building leadership skills and teamwork, and socializing with peers. In case of early sports specialization, many parents believe that putting their children early in any organized sport will help their children in gaining the competitive edge and achieve success in short period of time.

Athlete Development:

There are several athlete training programs commenced counteracting the detrimental consequences of year-round sports and early sports specialization. The programs are said to offer a positive framework to develop elite athletes and physical literacy.
Physical literacy is defined as the mastering of fundamental sports skills and fundamental movement skills and it includes agility, coordination, balance, and speed. These are the primary skills required for physical literacy. However, the shortfall of these athlete training programs is that they are not based on individual plans but on experimental evidence. Many countries are following these programs to develop elite talent that is; in place of promoting physical activities for the greater majority, they are nurturing the rare minority.
There are primarily five stages of these athlete training programs that include;
-The fundamental training
-Training to train
-Training to contend
-Training to win
Moreover, the early sports specialization model includes;
(0-12 years) – discover, learn, and play
(10-16 years) – develop and challenge
(13-19 years) – train and contend
(15 years and above) – participate and win
(for life) -Mentor and flourish
The sports medicine physiologists play a crucial role in the development of an athlete. They seek to determine the physiological demands of the athlete and his/her sporting performance. Their analysis helps them in gathering all the information regarding the required characteristics of an athlete to become successful at the competition’s highest level.
A sports doctor can determine these characteristics, which in turn allows him/her to advise the athletes and coaches about competition and training along with individuality and objectivity. They also understand how the athlete’s body adapts and responds to performing in diverse environments such as altitude, heat, cold, etc. With reference to sporting context, this understanding plays a vital role in informing and helping the athletes to contend in environmental extremes.

Consideration and Concerns for Early Sports Specialization:

In order to make sure that the adolescent is ready for a structured practice, certain developmental mechanisms should be worked
upon. Things like sport-related primary motor skill development, socialization, motivation, and sport-specific knowledge should be the primary concerns. It is said that an athlete requires a total 10,000 hours of practice and competition in order to strictly master the sport. Some say it’s a misconception while others say it is completely legit, but the fact that Overuse Injuries are at its highest levels has certainly ended many promising careers in sports over the years.
If an adolescent has underdeveloped fundamental skills, he/she may effort to play organized sport but the result might not emerge to be positive. So, having adequate amounts of developmental age will help the adolescent to learn sport-specific skills. So it is normal if they don’t start too young, they will eventually get up there.
On the other hand, the adolescents are vulnerable to burnout and overtraining and there may come a time when doing the same training and activities will not be fun anymore and it will ultimately decrease their desire to perform.
The biggest con of early sports specialization is the youth athlete putting all his/her eggs in one basket. For instance, suppose that you are going to be a professional football player and you get an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) – one of the common Sports Injuries (Knee). That’s it, you are done! You are left with no option but to continue with your education, there is no place where you can fall back. Moreover, there is a high probability of you getting narrow-minded if you stick to one sport only.
Sports Nutrition is also a big consideration for the adolescent athletes when it comes to early sports specialization. Rigorous training and exercise will not help them in improving their performance and health if they avoid the required nutrition.

Sports Performance and Energy:

Carbohydrates, protein, and fats all provide the athlete’s body with fuel to maintain the energy levels while training or during the competition. Carbohydrates are the most important nutritional factor that helps in muscle growth and movement. The adolescent athletes are advised by their sports medicine doctors and coaches to take adequate amount of carbohydrates in order to prevent muscle fatigue. Fats, on the other hand, are the main source of energy that helps them, especially during their training sessions. Proteins are also consumed in huge amounts as it helps them in developing new muscle tissues.

Weight Management:

The adolescent athletes are strictly advised to maintain the necessary weight according to their organized sport’s requirements. Hence, here comes the stress of weight management. As these young athletes are in their full development cycle, they can easily gain a lot of weight if not guided properly.
They are strictly told to take a balanced diet according to their body’s dietary requirements. The food in their diet includes fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.


A normal athlete consumes more amount of liquid than a non-athlete. They spend hours training in the field and gym and in the
competition. Dehydration is one of the biggest factors for overuse injuries as the muscle lacks the required electrolytes. Hence, these athletes invest in different types of sports and energy drinks as a cover up for their excess sweat release.

Overuse Injury on Growth:

“Injury is just part of the game” but the risk of injuries adolescents is multi-factorial including the pubertal maturation age, competition level, and training volume. A recent study conducted amongst high school athletes showed that the adolescent athletes are prone to increased risk of injury when their training volume surpasses 16 hours/week.
Another study suggests that sports specialization is the independent factor for overuse injury. The same study found out that the adolescent athletes who spend more hours playing organized sports per week than their age (years) are prone to overuse injuries. Moreover, the Sports Medicine doctors claim that attrition, depression, anxiety, and burnout are at high levels in early specializers.
As the adolescents are still growing, their constant changes in muscle mass, height, and body weight provide additional stress to connective tissues and joints. The growth cartilage in the growth plate in a child is susceptible the stress of constant micro-traumas.The most common sports injuries include muscle injuries, ligament damage, tendonitis, and sprains. As the adolescents are still in the early growing/developing stage, these injuries can be easily treated given that right medical procedures are followed. There are certain treatments for sports injuries which are almost common to situations. However, in most cases, when the young athletes are severely injured, they always consult a sports doctor as it is the tenderest phase of their athletic career and they don’t want to make any rookie mistakes with their injury.However, when the injury is not that serious, these adolescent athletes are taught the RICE therapy. It is the acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

How does the RICE Therapy work?

-Rest for at least 2 days without moving the injured area.
-Apply Ice packs to the injured area within the time gap of every 15-30 minutes. Avoid applying ice packs directly to the injured area; use a towel or a thick   cloth.
-Use compression bandages to reduce the swelling. And also avoid moving the injured area too much.
-Elevate the injured hand or leg to a comfortable position in order to reduce the swelling.

Sports Diversification is the key:

Sports Doctor and physios recommend exposing adolescent athletes to a number of sports and activities with the intent of playing instead of practicing. Sports diversification provides an environment for the athletes which can help them in nurturing their true love for a sport in a way that structured and productive practice can be followed. This will ease down their vulnerability towards overuse injuries. As they engage in diverse sports activities, the repeated stress to the same joint, tendon, bone, or muscle is less likely to occur during their pubescent growth spurt.


About Author

Dr. Jaime Figueroa Conde

Dr. Jaime Conde is a graduate from University of Barcelona, where he obtained his Medical Doctorate in Sports Medicine. Dr. Conde is a lecturer at Modelo University in Mexico for students studying Masters in Sports Physiotherapy, as well as, being an assistant professor in public health at Anahuac University. He was also a resident doctor at FC Barcelona, an exercise physiology doctor at Gava’s Sports Medicine Center and the Medical Manager at Releaf Sports Medicine Clinic located in Mexico. Dr. Conde has special interest in exercise medicine, sports injuries, muscle injury, joint & tissues injury and rehabilitation.

Search Blog

Calculate Your BMI

Check the calorie counter
comments powered by Disqus
Find a Doctor