By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E
“Do MLB players who specialize early sustain more serious injuries?”
Early Sports Specialization – Effectiveness and Risk of injury in Professional Baseball Players11
Purpose: To determine the impact of early sport specialization on the frequency of serious injuries during a professional baseball payer’s career.
Subjects: 102 active professional baseball players from 8 MLB teams in 2016.
Procedures: Players anonymously completed a 7-question written survey developed by The Orthopedic Residency of York in York, PA. Early sport specialization was defined as “single-sport participation prior to high school.” Injury was defined as “a serious injury or surgery that required the player to refrain from baseball for an entire year.
- 50 players (48%) of the players specialized early, i.e., participated in a single-sport prior to high school
- The mean age at which specialization started was 8.91 +/- 3.7 years
- 76% of the players were under 11 years of age when they started to specialize
- 31% of the players experienced 1 to 4 serious injuries during their professional careers and those who specialized early had a significantly higher rate of serious injury that those who specialized later
- 4% of the players believed that early specialization was not required to play professional baseball
Why do players specialize early?
- Belief that focusing on one sport will provide an edge in competition and result in performance superior to that of athletes who play multiple sports
- Belief that early exposure to collegiate and pro scouts will increase the chances of receiving a scholarship or pro contract
What does the research say?
- Approximately 7% of high school baseball players play in college4
- 1 in 200 (0.5%) of high school senior baseball players in the US are drafted by MLB and even fewer ever play in the major leagues6
- Few athletes achieve an elite or professional level. Less than 1% of athletes ages 6-17 achieve elite status in baseball, softball, basketball, football or soccer9
- Elite tennis players specialize later than near-elite players5
- Olympic athletes are more likely to have participated in more than one sport after the age of 117
- Among high-level athletes the greater the number of sport activities experienced; the fewer sport-specific practices are needed to acquire expertise in their sport1-2
- Early specialization is related to an increased risk of injury during periods of rapid growth10
- Early specialization may contribute to burnout and droupout3
- Professional baseball players may be at higher risk of sustaining a serious injury if they specialized early in baseball during their youth
- Early specialization does not guarantee success
- Young athletes should be encouraged to play multiple sports through high school, with the knowledge of doing so will not hinder their potential to become a collegiate or professional baseball player
- Baker, J, et. al. Learning from the experts: practice activities of expert decision-makers in sport. Res Q Exerc Sport, 74: 342-347, 1993.
- Baker, J, et. al. Sport-specific practice and the development of exert decision-making in team ball sports. J Appl Sport Pschol, 15: 12-25, 2003.
- Barynina, JL, et. al. The aftermath of early sort specialization for highly qualified swimmers. Fitness Sports Rev Int, 27: 132-133, 2003.
- Baseball: Probability of competition beyond high school: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/baseball-probability-competing-beyond-high-school
- Carlson, R. The socialization of elite tennis players in Sweden: Sociol Sport J. 5: 242-256, 1998.
- Estimated probability of competing in professional athletics. NCAA Research, http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probility-competiting-professional-athletics. Updated April 25, 2016.
- Gullich, A and E Emrich. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite sports system. Eur J Sport Sci. 13(3): 85-108, 2006.
- Hill, G. Youth sport specialization of professional baseball players. Sociol Sport J 10: 107-114, 1993.
- Malina, R. Early sport specialization roots, effectiveness, risks. Curr Sports Med Rep. 9(6): 364-371, 2010.
- Maffulli, N. et. al. Long-term sport involvement and sports injury rate in elite athletes. Arch Dis Child, 90: 525-527, 2005.
- Wilhelm, A. et. al. Effectiveness and risk of injury in professional baseball players. Ortho J Sports Med 5(9), 2017.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FASCM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros) and strength and conditioning consultant (Ranges). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Science Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager, baseballstrength.org.