Study: Benefits of Multi-sport Participation and Specialization Delay

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Sports specialization and youth athletes

It’s not just about preventing overuse injuries, it’s also what 88% of college athletes do

Participation in youth sports is at an all-time high in this country, with kids starting almost as soon as they can walk. Children of all ages are in on the action, from T-ball and soccer leagues for kids barely out of the toddler stage to college and Olympic level athletes. Most do it for fun and social interaction, some have high hopes for scholarships or professional careers.

One thing most of these youth athletes have in common is parents herding them to practices and games, cheering them on, and supporting their aspirations. However, sometimes caring parents, intentionally or not, put unnecessary pressure on their children to excel.

Overuse and specialization

One area where this type of pressure is seen is in specializing in one sport. Parents seeking sports scholarships often encourage their children to participate year-round in recreational, travel and school teams of a single sport. Besides the potential for overuse injuries and fatigue, children are at risk for burnout. Kids have their limits and too much of the same thing may push them to quit playing altogether.

A study conducted by UCLA drives home these points . Of 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes, 88% averaged participation in two to three sports as children and 70% didn’t specialize until after the age of 12. This research suggests that the odds of athletes achieving elite levels through specialization are poor. The exception would be in gymnastics where athletes reach elite levels at a young age.

The general rule of thumb is that children shouldn’t consider specializing until age 15 or 16. However, it’s always best to encourage kids to play different sports and even take a season off. It’s also healthy to balance sports with other activities, such as music, and involvement in scouting or other youth groups.

It’s a girl thing

Girls are participating in more sports at higher levels of competition than ever before. Therefore, it’s important for parents, coaches and players to realize that the anatomical difference between males and females leaves them more vulnerable to certain injuries.

Female athletes are more prone to ACL injuries than male athletes. This is in large part due to the increasing number of  girls playing soccer, a sport that sees more ACL injuries than most. However, the strength of the ACL can be affected by estrogen levels that fluctuate during the menstrual cycle. High injury rates among girls can also be attributed to the fact that they have wider pelvises and weaker hamstrings. This can put added stress on the ACL, according to New York orthopedic surgeon Armin M. Tehrany.

Keeping the lines of communication open

It’s important for athletes to be honest with their parents and trainers about how they feel about playing and any pain they’re experiencing. It’s equally important for parents and trainers to listen and act accordingly. If the child resists going to practice, maybe he or she needs a break. Many athletes fear being taken out of the game if they complain of injuries. Ignoring or playing through pain only increases the risk for further injury and even surgery. Being aware of and practicing sport-specific injury prevention is critical.

Source: Matthew Engel. “Top orthopedic surgeon urges parents not to push young athletes too hard,” 20 July 2017.

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