Risks of Sports Specialization Among Youth Athletes

Focus on a single sport can lead to overuse injuries

Kids are starting to participate in recreational sports leagues and camps at increasingly younger ages in recent years. T-ball teams, soccer leagues, swim clubs, skating rinks, cheer squads, tumbling schools and even dance studios are filled with little people, some as young 3 and 4 years of age.  And many are choosing to participate in a single activity year round from an early age.

Sports specialization (focusing on a single sport) in youth sports can, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), result in early burnout, emotional stress and overuse injuries. However, the risks can be mitigated by following recommendations by AAP.

Weighing the decision to specialize

Research shows that the physical development of children is better among those who play a variety of sports prior to puberty. Encouraging kids to experience a overuse injuries in youth sportswide range of sports activities also means they’ll be much less likely to lose interest or quit altogether. Studies show that children who specialized in a single sport from a young age tend to have more short-lived athletic careers.  The AAP recommends that children put off specializing in a sport until about age 15 or 16.

It’s important to determine why you or your child thinks he or she should specialize. More often than not, college scholarships are a motivator.  Be realistic about such opportunities: on average, 8% percent of high school athletes succeed in making a college team, but only 1% of those make it on an athletic scholarship.

Specialization and overuse injuries

Specialization can lead to overuse injuries, which can be muscle, bone, tendon or ligament damage resulting from repetitive stress and lack of healing time. One of the most common overuse injuries among athletes is shin splints.

Alarmingly, overuse accounts for half of all sports medicine injuries among children and teens. Children and teens are more susceptible to overuse injuries than adults because their still underdeveloped bones don’t recover as well from stress.

Preventing overuse injuries

So, if the decision has been made to specialize, there are steps that can be taken to lower the risk of overuse injuries.

Be Prepared:  It’s critical that all athletes maintain their fitness level both in and off season. General and sport-specific conditioning during the preseason are also extremely important. An evaluation by a physician prior to participation is the most essential step in determining whether a child can safely play his or her chosen sport. This should be done four to six weeks prior to practice and play to allow for time to address any potential obstacles to participation.

Train Smart: Weekly training times, distances, and repetitions should only be increased by 10% each week. For example, a 15-mile per week run should only be increased to 16.5 miles the following week, 18 miles the week after that and so on. Sport-specific trainingOveruse injuries in youth sports should vary. For instance, runners incorporate a diversity of running surfaces by running on the road, on a treadmill, on grass and in a pool. Likewise, training should include a variety of workouts, such as treadmills/ellipticals, weight lifting, and swimming.

Rest Smart: Training every day is a sure path to emotional and physical stress. Athletes should allow time for recovery by taking at least one day off every week from training, practice and  play. It’s just as important to take four to eight weeks off during the year from a specific sport.  A good rule of thumb is one month off for every six months of training and play.

Avoid Burnout: Overtraining can alter an athlete’s physical, hormonal and mental performance. Remember that a child should enjoy participating and the training should be age appropriate. They shouldn’t look at it as a job or a test. Be aware of changes in the athlete’s eating and sleeping habits. In particular, be alert for changes in or cessation of a girl’s menstrual period. Don’t hesitate to consult a physician if such changes are observed.


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