Early Sport Specialization in College Athletes and the Impact on Health-Related Quality of Life: A Critically Appraised Topic

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Journal of Sport Rehabilitation


Clinical Scenario: Youth athletes may specialize in a sport of their choosing, or based on external pressures, to pursue elite status in that sport. Current evidence shows an association between highly specialized athletes and an increase in injuries as well as a connection between injury and lower health-related quality of life (HRQOL). Clinical Question: In college athletes, do early sport specialization characteristics (ie, age at specialization and degree of specialization) impact current HRQOL? Summary of Key Findings: The literature was searched for studies that investigated the age of specialization (early vs late) or degree of specialization (high, moderate, and low) and the impact on HRQOL. (1) The search returned 6 possible studies related to the clinical question. Three of the studies met the inclusion criteria and were used for this appraisal. (2) Two of the 3 included studies reported that highly specialized athletes noted lower HRQOL. (3) One study found there to be no significant difference in HRQOL between athletes who specialized early versus late but did find those who specialized early to have a greater incidence of injuries that required surgery. Clinical Bottom Line: There is moderate evidence that early sport specialization is associated with lower HRQOL compared with late sport specialization. It is important to educate athletes, parents, and coaches on the potential detriments that are associated with early sport specialization to allow stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding participation. Strength of Recommendation: Grade B evidence exists to support the idea that early, intensive sport specialization may be associated with decreased HRQOL in current college athletes.

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