Kids who play sports can reap many benefits, including improved physical fitness, development of athletic skills, team-building and, of course, fun. Student athletes who excel at a sport may even qualify for college athletic scholarships, which may tempt both kids and their parents to focus on a single sport, such as soccer, football or baseball.
However, some pediatricians and sports medicine experts believe that specializing in one sport may put young athletes at risk of both physical injuries and burnout, especially if they do so at a young age.
Daniel Lichtmann, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley who specializes in sports injuries, said that the most common injuries are caused not by trauma, but by overuse. “Being in just one particular sport, you’re constantly using the exact same muscles over and over, so it increases your risk for overuse injury for two reasons,” said Dr. Lichtmann. “One, you’re using those muscles more, and two, you’re not necessarily strengthening the surrounding muscles that help support the ligaments and joints and bones in the area.”
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that young athletes minimize these risks by waiting until age 15 or 16 to focus on a specific sport. In addition, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine stated that in most sports, specializing at a young age offers no benefit.
A study published in July in The American Journal of Sports Medicine appears to confirm that specialization may increase the risk of injuries among high school athletes by 50 percent. Among the most common injuries were ankle sprains, knee tendonitis and stress fractures. Students were considered “highly specialized” if they had quit one sport to focus on another, considered their chosen sport more important, and trained more than eight months a year for their sport.
“Kids today aren’t even regulated as much as pro athletes. The NFL no longer allows twice-daily practices, but they are still done at the high school level,” said Shaun Berger, MD, a pediatrician with Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego. “The winning pitcher for the Little League Softball World Series just pitched nearly 500 pitches in eight days, when at her age she should only be pitching 75 pitches a week, including practice.”
Add variety and rest to the schedule
Pediatricians believe it is important for young athletes to play a variety of sports, both to avoid overtaxing certain muscles and joints as well as to encourage a more balanced workout. In addition to team sports, kids should have the opportunity to try individual sports such as swimming or martial arts.
“Even in high school it is probably best to be in multiple sports, but if you are specializing, it’s important that you’re doing some kind of cross-training, either with the team or during the offseason, so you’re not constantly using the same muscles,” said Dr. Lichtmann. “And, kids and adults should have at least a day off from activity each week to let the body recover.”
Parents should keep in mind that kids may not recognize subtle signs of injury or overuse until the damage has been done.
“If it hurts, your body is telling you something. Resting now can help prevent longer recovery times or even worse injuries in the future,” said Dr. Berger. “Athletes want to play through injuries, but often an injured athlete may actually hurt the team if they can’t make a play because of their injury. Sometimes taking time off to recover can get you back to playing at 100 percent sooner.”
Dr. Berger added that a good rule of thumb for training is to increase intensity, duration or frequency of activity by no more than 10 percent from week to week.
Along with delaying specialization until after puberty and encouraging kids to try a variety of sports, the AAP also offers the following recommendations:
- Discuss the decision to specialize with your pediatrician or family doctor, who can help determine if the child is physically and emotionally ready for the demands of the sport, and offer suggestions to minimize injury.
- If kids are involved in high-level sports programs or clubs, ensure the coaches and trainers are well-qualified to work with youth, and closely monitor the training schedules.
- Encourage young athletes to take one-month breaks from their chosen sport at least three times a year, while still enjoying other activities.