Early Sports Specialization in
Tennis: risk and benefits
Belmarie Rodriguez, MD - William Micheo, MD | May 6, 2019
Sport specialization is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of participation in other sports. Early sport specialization has increased over the last decade with year-round participation in a single sport becoming more common during early childhood. The goal of sport specialization is to maximize the potential for athletic success through deliberate practice and competition. This has raised concerns about whether this practice may be detrimental to a young athlete. Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of overuse injury which affect the immature skeleton, increased psychologic stress, and burnout which results in athletes quitting sports at a young age. Furthermore, there is a debate on whether intense training and competition at a very young age is required to achieve an elite level of competition since many elite athletes have participated in multiple sports while growing up.ADVERTISEMENT
The majority of sports don’t require that the athlete specializes in a single sport before adolescence. Participation in multiple sports during childhood known as sport sampling provides the young athlete many physical, cognitive and psychologic benefits. The development of motor skills such as balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength, achieved through sport sampling is of benefit for the young athlete. Tennis is considered a late specialization sport in which athletes can start to specialize during adolescence.
A developmental model for sports specialization has been proposed by many national sports governing bodies. The developmental model for tennis which has been developed by the United States Tennis Association divides tennis participation into three stages. During the first stage, prior to age 12, the athlete discovers and learns about the sport, is exposed to basic tennis skills while having fun and continuing to participate in other sports. In the second stage of tennis participation, between ages 12 to 18, the athlete better understands the demands of the sport, including training and progression in competition. The third stage, reached by ages 15-18, is the competitive phase in which the athletes dedicate themselves full time to the sport of tennis and work on becoming an elite-level competitive player.
This developmental model provides a framework for social, psychologic and developmental aspects of youth involvement in tennis and allows transition to competition and hopefully lifetime participation in the sport. In addition, delaying sports specialization can lead to a reduction in overuse injuries, reduction of psychological stress related to sports participation and competition, greater enjoyment of the sport and competitive success.
Belmarie Rodríguez, MD
Sports Medicine Fellow
William Micheo, MD
Professor and Chair
Physical Medicine, Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Department,
University of Puerto Rico, School of Medicine