Is Specializing in Only One Sport Hurting Your Child?
It could be. More and more, high school and even pre-teen students are practicing and playing only one sport year round in hopes of gaining a college scholarship or reaching an elite level of competition. However there is no evidence that shows that intense training in one sport before puberty or in the early teen’s results in an improved ability to get that scholarship or achieve elite status.
Injury may be more likely in one sport athletes, especially in pre-teens to mid-teens. In my experience, I have seen a number of middle and high school students that play one sport competitively all year have recurrent and/or serious injuries at young ages. Lack of diversity of activity/exercise can overstress some joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles, while others may be underutilized. Even though many injuries heal more rapidly in youth, some injuries can cause serious or permanent damage. An example would be a teen league pitcher that plays baseball all year long and may not have perfect form who injures the inside of his elbow to such an extent that surgical repair becomes necessary.
Make sure you listen to your child when he or she complains of pain or an injury, and don’t force him or her to “play through the pain.” I recall working at a state youth wrestling tournament a number of years ago when a 9 year old boy who was in tears complained to the referee about neck pain. I was called over to examine the child and based on my professional exam as both an athletic trainer and a physical therapist, I recommended the child stop playing in order to prevent serious injury to the nerves going to his arm. The child’s father went crazy, screaming and insisting that his child get out there and finish because his child was going to win and he couldn’t be “a wimp.” Fortunately, the referee took my professional advice and called the match so the child did not get hurt further during that tournament.
Not only is there increased risk of physical injury, but there can also be a significantly greater amount of psychological stress and early burnout with the sport. I believe there is often an excessive amount of pressure placed on some young athletes to excel that they no longer find enjoyment in playing that sport and end up quitting prior to having the chance to actually get the college scholarship or reach an elite level.
There are many ways to keep a child healthy, motivated and safe, while still working toward a scholarship. Seek the advice of a professional and have your child learn correct training techniques. Limit weekly and yearly participation in each sport/activity. Overly aggressive training is just as harmful as improper training.
Remember, for most youth, sports should be about fun and fitness, not the push to get a scholarship or reach elite status. Although we all watched Bode Miller get another medal in this year’s Olympics at age 36, the majority of elite athletes have short careers compared to their lifespan. Teach your child to enjoy sports as a means of staying healthy.
Thank you for reading and stay active. If you have any questions or suggestions for future topics, feel free to let us know.
DiFiori J, Benjamin H, Luke A, et al. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal Of Sport Medicine [serial online]. 2014;24(1):3-20.
Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach [serial online]. May 2013; 5(3):251-257