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Sports specialization: Does it help or hurt youth athletes?

Sports specialization: Does it help or hurt youth athletes?
Sports specialization: Does it help or hurt youth athletes?

It isn’t uncommon for coaches and parents to push child and youth athletes to focus on a singular sport in the hope that he or she becomes a star. While keeping aspirations high isn’t necessarily a bad thing, sports specialization may be doing your child more harm than good.

Specialization increases a young athlete’s risk of sports-related injuries (most often overuse injuries), which may ultimately limit a player’s athletic success. Repetitive motion and overuse can lead to soft tissue and joint issues, including problems with growth plates. Those issues can then result in stress fractures or more serious elbow, shoulder, knee or back injuries, among others.

In 2012, a Sports Health review noted an increase in injury rates among young athletes who overdo it in one sport. According to the review, youth pitchers who throw more than 100 innings per year are 3.5 times more likely to be injured than those who pitch less. And pitchers who throw more than eight months a year are five times more likely to require elbow or shoulder surgery compared to pitchers who spend less time on the mound.

How can injuries due to sports specialization be prevented?

Cross training is very beneficial for preventing overuse injuries in young athletes. Cross training exposes young athletes to a variety of sports, each of which uses different major muscle groups and stresses the body in different ways.

The purpose of cross training is to challenge different muscle groups and improve overall strength, as opposed to strengthening one area of the body while paying little attention to the strength and health of others. Cross training also allows an athlete to fine-tune a variety of motor skills, which can actually enhance his or her long-term success.

How young is too young for sports specialization?

A young athlete is most vulnerable to injuries during the peak of his or her biggest growth spurt. This usually occurs between ages 12 and 16 for boys and ages 9 and 13 for girls, but every child is different.

Is sports specialization always a bad idea?

There are some sports that may be the exception to the rule, but cross training is always a good idea for athletes, no matter their age. Sports like gymnastics, dance, figure skating and diving require athletes to begin at a young age if he or she wants to reach an elite level in the sport.

The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is a prime example of how practicing multiple sports can improve an athlete’s success. According to USA Today, a survey of the U.S. women’s team found that “collectively they played at least 14 different sports competitively while growing up, as well as soccer. And significantly, all believe the other disciplines enhanced rather than hindered their soccer careers.”

It can be easy for a parent to succumb to pressure from a coach for their child to focus on one sport, but the reality is that by encouraging youth athletes to specialize in one sport at a young age, they may end up sacrificing a lifetime of athletic success—and even that college scholarship.

Some children simply do not want to play other sports, in which case it’s important for parents to encourage other types of physical activity and cross training to help mitigate injury risks.

If you think playing one sport may be negatively affecting your young athlete’s health and well being, consult with your child’s physician.


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