Early Single Sport Specialization in a High-Achieving US Athlete Population: Comparing National Collegiate Athletic Association Student-Athletes and Undergraduate Students.

Document Type


Publication Date



Sports Medicine

Journal Title

Journal of athletic training

MeSH Headings

Athletes, Athletic Injuries, Athletic Performance, Child, Cross-Sectional Studies, Family, Female, Humans, Male, Psychology, Risk Factors, Specialization, Students, United States, Young Adult, Youth Sports


CONTEXT: Early single-sport specialization and the relative age effect are often cited as improving the chances of sport success. Both concepts suggest that genetics and the environment have little influence on sport success.

OBJECTIVE: To compare National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I student-athletes (SAs) with their undergraduate nonathlete peers (NAs) in terms of birth month, age of sport initiation, and age of single-sport specialization. A family history of sport participation was examined as a potential marker for genetic and social influences.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional survey.

SETTING: Large urban university.

PATIENTS OR OTHER PARTICIPANTS: A total of 273 Division I SAs (138 women, 135 men) and 155 NAs (78 women, 77 men) participated. The NAs had been involved in competitive youth sports before entering the university.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE(S): Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that addressed the age of sport initiation, birth month, age of single-sport specialization, and parental and sibling sport achievement.

MAIN RESULTS: Neither birth month nor the age of sport initiation differed between groups (age of sport initiation = 7.16 ± 2.6 years for the SAs versus 7.71 ± 3.5 for the NAs;

CONCLUSIONS: The Division I SAs did not specialize in a single sport at a younger age than the NAs. No evidence of a relative age effect was present. Importantly, higher levels of sport achievement among the parents and siblings of SAs suggest that genetic endowment and family or other environmental dynamics play a large role in athletic performance. Overall, the results are not consistent with deliberate practice theory and point toward an alternative model that includes not only sport-specific skill development but also genetic and social factors as key elements of long-term sport achievement.



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