Damaged Goods...

Scott C. Anderson MA, ATC
Director of Athletic Training
 Stanford University

The Pitfalls of Youth Specialization

There are over 44 million individual youth sport participants in the United States today. Youth Sports Organizations (YSO’s) are a booming enterprise, flourishing under the promise of elite level instruction, competition, and countless life lessons to be learned by kids everywhere. It is a refuge for many to discover the fun in sport, their physical potential, and for social growth outside the conformity of a classroom. It is a parents dream. 

While these YSO’s are busy getting our kids to fall in love with America’s pastime, a funny thing happens to parents – they develop biases that prevent them from understanding the inherent risks underlying the promises of playing sports. Seeing their offspring perform well and receive praise fills parents with pride. Watching their child’s beaming faces in the light of success perpetuates the ritual of praise giving at home. In a matter of months, my son’s first birdie has convinced me he is the next Tiger Woods. Surely there is a difference between sport played by children and sport played on TV by professionals, but many parents do not see it that way. Thus, sport specialization is born.

As the years go by, parents subconsciously manipulate their environment to enable what they already believe to be true – “my child is the best at EVERYTHING!” Symptoms develop (moving to a different city for sport coaching, private individual instruction, constant training/practice, and year round travel) that challenge the development of resilience and physical durability in our youth. However, many parents see this as fair trade in exchange for the potential of an athletic scholarship in the future. Now, for the first time, Stanford University's Sports Medicine Department has collected evidence that suggest some unintended consequences with sport obsession. I’m talking about injuries.

"WHY...what purpose does this serve?"

Recently, we chose to take a closer look at the impact external variables like youth specialization has on the careers of collegiate athletes. Over a four-year period, we collected comprehensive previous medical histories on all incoming student-athletes at Stanford University, a task designed to better understand and quantify the risk of continued sport participation. What we found was shocking. 78% of the 1,693 distinct medical histories examined reported a total of 3,126 injuries. These injuries resulted in over a combined 93,000 days of participation lost. Additionally, over 500 student-athletes reported having had a least one surgery due to a youth sports injury. Of the injuries reported, 20% indicated still having symptoms from the injury, despite continued participation in sport. Based on these findings (and others here), the extensive medical histories now commonplace in our youth athletes can now help us better correlate movement pattern deficiencies and lack of physical recovery with the risk equation investigated upon arrival to their college campuses.

It may be difficult to change this trend, as it appears parents and young athletes have accepted that significant injuries are part of the game. It doesn’t have to be that way! We need to start by re-examining the purpose of sport in our society. Today it seems our youth have two options:

Option #1(Process Driven-Growth Mindset)
1.    To have a fun 
2.    Play a variety of sports and activities out of pure enjoyment
3.    Learn valuable life lessons
4.    Experience unimpeded rest and physical recovery

Option #2 (Results Driven-Fixed Mindset)
1.    To win
2.    Train incessantly to be the best at one sport
3.    Sacrifice appropriate sleep and recovery for sport demands
4.    Get injured - a lot

Why are many choosing option #2? In order to change youth behaviors, we need an answer to this question!

What steps need to be taken to shift this paradigm? Let this be your forum and let's have a discussion. Be bold...I invite you to REPLY NOW and answer these questions!

Please, if this article resonated with you or you believe in a brighter future for our kids and professional athletes, share this post. Start asking why. Send this post to everyone you know and start changing the culture. Let's take a stand for our children's future physical well-being and educate our youth and future athletes how to Move2Thrive!


Scott C. Anderson MA, ATC
Director of Athletic Training
Stanford University Sports Medicine