Sport Specialization and Psychosocial and Physical Health Outcomes in College Students

This week’s EXSS Impact Post was developed by Shelby Waldron (senior, EXSS and Psychology major, SURF program participant) and J.D. DeFreese, PhD (faculty advisor)

JD Pic 1Why did you do this study?

Recently there has been a movement towards sport specialization (high intensity, year- round training in a single sport, with the exclusion of other sports), evident in the increasing number of elite youth sport competitions, such as the Junior Olympics and AAU. There has also been a growing number of position statements, from major medical organizations, proposing specialization as an antecedent of maladaptive psychological and physical health outcomes. Two of the most prominent concerns are burnout (the multidimensional psychological syndrome of reduced sense of athletic accomplishment, sport devaluation, and physical and emotional exhaustion) and increased risk of injuries. Despite growing interest, there is little to no empirical support for these claims, especially in regards to psychosocial health outcomes. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between young adults’ retrospective sport specialization and both past and present physical (i.e. injury risk, physical activity level, and sport attrition) and psychosocial (i.e. burnout, motivation, athlete engagement, perceived social support, perceived sport stress, and resilience) health.

Medical Organization Position Statement
American Medical Society for Sports Medicine “Early sport specialization may increase the risk for overuse injury and burnout and should be avoided at younger ages.”
National Athletic Trainer’s Association “In addition to the potential for repetitive microtrauma and overuse injury, specialization in 1 sport may be associated with … psychological or socialization issues, and ultimately burnout.”
American Academy of Pediatrics “Young athletes who specialize too soon are at risk of physical, emotional, and social problems.”
National Association for Sports and Physical Education “Reduce burnout and dropping out from sports, and maximize the probability of personal development…by discouraging specialization in one sport until a young person can make a fully informed decision.”

What did you do and what did you find in this study?

Data was collected from a convenience sample of one-hundred and fifty college aged individuals (ages 18-23), who completed at least one season of competitive sport in high school.  After consenting, participants completed an anonymous, online Qualtrics survey, at their convenience. The survey included self-reported demographics and retrospective high school sport participation (i.e. sport type, number of total seasons, and average weekly training volume). Participants reflected on their final high school sport season when responding to retrospective psychosocial measures (i.e. athlete burnout, self-determined sport motivation, athlete engagement, perceived social support, and perceived sport stress) and reporting prior injury history. Finally, participants self-reported measures of current psychological (i.e. intrinsic motivation for exercise and psychological resilience) and physical (i.e. physical activity level and sport participation) health.

Psychosocial Variables
  What is it? How Measured?
Athlete Burnout Feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion, devaluation of sport, and reduced sense of athletic accomplishment. Retrospective
Self-determined Sport Motivation Level of different types of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation the individual has towards their sport participation. Retrospective
Athlete Engagement General positive feelings of involvement and success in sport. Retrospective
Perceived Social Support Perceptions of availability of social support if needed, in different situations. Retrospective
Perceived Sport Stress Subjective level of pressure and anxiety associated with sport participation. Retrospective
Psychological Resilience Ability to successfully adapt to life tasks in the face of obstacles or adverse conditions. Current
Intrinsic Motivation for Exercise Level of motivation the individual has towards their current physical activity habits. Current


Physical Health Variables
  What is it? How Measured?
Injury Risk Number of total sports-related injuries pre-college. Type and mechanism of injury (i.e. acute or overuse) for each injury. Retrospective
Vigorous Physical Activity Number of days per week x hours per day of physical activity that causes increased heart rate and heavy breathing. Current
Moderate Physical Activity Number of days per week x hours per day of physical activity that causes slight increases in heart rate and breathing. Current
Sitting Time spent sitting on weekdays and weekends, respectively. Current
Sport Participation Level of current sport participation (i.e. None, Recreational, Club, or Varsity). Current

Overall, participants reported low-to-moderate levels of retrospective global athlete burnout and its three dimensions. However, a majority of the sample (76.7%) experienced a sports-related injury during their athletic career, with an average of approximately 3 injuries. Correlations between study variables were statistically significant and in line with previous theoretical and empirical findings. Additionally, significant associations between specialization factors (i.e. weekly training volume) and both psychological (i.e. burnout) and physical (i.e. past injury rate) health outcomes support an indirect, maladaptive relationship between specialization and health outcomes.

Utilizing a 3-point specialization scale, participants were classified as low, moderate, or highly specialized, with an almost equal split amongst the sample. While minimal significant group differences between specialization groups were found, highly specialized athletes reported significantly lower average levels of reduced accomplishment (a dimension/symptom of athlete burnout) when compared to the moderate specialization group. In addition, highly specialized athletes reported higher levels of integrated motivation (the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation), compared to low specializers. Together, these adaptive outcomes suggest that the specialization environment may not be inherently maladaptive in regards to athletes’ psychosocial health. Instead, this relationship may be dependent on mediating factors, such as athletes’ reasons for specializing. While exploratory in nature, athletes who reported more adaptive reasons for specializing (i.e. pursuit of athletic excellence), reported significantly higher levels of adaptive outcomes (i.e. athlete engagement and intrinsic motivation for exercise) and lower levels of maladaptive outcomes (i.e. reduced accomplishment and sport stress), compared to other specializers.

Specialization Classification Using 3-point Scale

Specialization Grouping

Number of “Yes” Responses to Questions: 1) Did you quit other sports to focus on a single sport? 2) Did you train > 8 months of the year in a single sport? 3) Did you consider one sport more important than all other sports? Study Sample: n (%)
Low ≤ 1 46 (30.7%)
Moderate 2 60 (40.0%)
High 3 44 (29.3%)

JD Figure1

How do these findings impact the public?

This study serves to further understanding of the costs and benefits of sport specialization, in order to aid in the development of recommendations, guidelines, and interventions to help clinicians treat and prevent maladaptive psychological health outcomes and injuries. Additionally, study findings educate parents, athletes, and coaches, and inform sport governing bodies’ policies. While minimal significant group differences were found, correlational data supports a maladaptive relationship between sport specialization and health outcomes, warranting further research. Additionally, the lack of significant differences may be due to the small number of early specializers (specializing before age 13) in the sample, as this pathway has been posited to carry the most health risks. While limited in scope, the findings contradicted prominent claims by suggesting that the specialization-psychological health relationship may not be inherently maladaptive, but perhaps more complex. For example, psychosocial outcomes associated with sport specialization may be dependent on mediating factors, such as athletes’ reasons for specializing. This study also serves as a first step to corroborate theoretical assumptions with empirical support and verify the utility of future prospective studies. Based on the current findings, directions for future research include: focusing on the effects of early specialization (specializing before age 13) and examining potential mediating factors in the specialization-psychological health relationship.


This research was conducted as part of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) for Shelby Waldron through UNC’s Office for Undergraduate Research. The SURF program encourages undergraduate involvement in research via funding of student-led research projects. For more information see OUR’s website: