(Inside Science) -- Becoming a professional athlete takes drive, dedication and years of practice. But for many young players, specializing too early in their chosen sport will not help them reach elite levels, and could actually harm their health.
Pediatric sports specialization, defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport to the exclusion of all others for more than eight months a year, is common among kids in North America. But a recent study published in the journal Sports Health found that while elite NHL and collegiate hockey players often started playing sports around 4 years old, they only specialized in hockey at, on average, age 14.
This is in line with the advice of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, which recommends that boys hold off on specializing in any sport until 14, and girls until 12. Waiting until their bodies are more mature before specializing gives the growth plates in their bones and joints a chance to close and reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries. Hockey players who started training intensely at a young age can often develop hip problems, which are especially common for goalies. Specializing too young also increases the risk of burnout.
There are a few exceptions in sports where elite competition starts young, such as gymnastics and diving. In those cases, young athletes need to start training their bodies early to be able to do all of the specific physical movements associated with their sport, said Robert Dimeff, former president of the AMSSM and head physician for the NHL's Dallas Stars.
Because hockey requires that players master a wide variety of physical movements, there is actually a benefit to training in multiple sports at a young age, because the skills learned are transferrable. The same principle also applies to other sports.
“That's why the greatest athletes are often multisport athletes,” said Dimeff. “Some of the best collegiate football coaches, for example, say they don't want a football player who has only played football.”