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Impact of youth sports specialisation on career and task-specific athletic performance: a systematic review following the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) Collaborative Research Network's 2019 Youth Early Sport Specialisation Summit

Kliethermes, S. A.; Nagle, K.; Côté, J.; Malina, R. M.; Faigenbaum, A.; Watson, A.; Feeley, B.; Marshall, S. W.; LaBella, C. R.; Herman, D. C.; Tenforde, A.; Beutler, A. I.; Jayanthi, N.

Br J Sports Med. 2019 Nov 20; 54(4):221-230

Abstract

OBJECTIVE: The impact, positive or negative, of youth sport specialisation (YSS) on short-term and long-term performance is not fully understood; however, the desire to maximise performance goals is generally considered the primary reason children and adolescents specialise at a young age. We performed a systematic review of original research to establish the association of YSS and task-focused or career-focused performance outcomes. DESIGN: Systematic review. DATA SOURCES: Databases searched include PubMed, EMBASE, Cochrane, CINAHL and SPORTDiscus. ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA: We followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines to identify peer-reviewed research articles published in English between 1 January 1990 and 31 December 2018 that reported original findings on the association of YSS and performance outcomes. Studies without an explicit measure of sport specialisation, for example, volume measures without measuring sport specialisation, were excluded. RESULTS: Twenty-two articles were included in the final review; 15 addressed career performance outcomes and 7 considered task performance outcomes. All identified studies were cross-sectional or retrospective in design. The proportion of elite athletes who specialised early ranged between 7% and 85%, depending on sport and definition of specialisation. Elite athletes often specialised between the ages of 14 and 15 compared with their non-elite or semi-elite peers who typically specialised prior to 13 years. In addition, neuromuscular control, anterior reach asymmetry and physical task outcomes did not differ by specialisation status. CONCLUSION: The volume and methodological rigour of published research in this field are limited. Our review suggests that YSS is not required to achieve success at elite levels. YSS also does not appear to improve task-related performance (eg, anterior reach, neuromuscular control) outcomes for specialised athletes when compared with non-specialised athletes during childhood and adolescence.

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