Beware of Early Sports Specialization for Young Athletes

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young boy kicking a soccer ball with team behind him

Parents and coaches who buy into the notion that child and teen athletes should specialize in a single sport year-round may be doing more harm than good.

Many people in the increasingly competitive youth sports culture think intensive focus and training in one sport is the path to elite status. Sports medicine specialists, including UH orthopedic surgeon Jacob Calcei, MD, say that isn’t so.

The reality is youth sports specialization doesn’t necessarily enhance performance or lead to athletic scholarships, Dr. Calcei says. It does, however, lead to risk of overuse injuries, psychological stress and burnout.

Risk of Overuse Injuries Increases

Many elite athletes know that playing different sports help improve agility, speed, coordination and balance.

“Many of the best athletes at the college and professional levels played multiple sports in high school,” Dr. Calcei says. “Diversifying makes you a better, more well-rounded athlete, and often makes you better at the one sport you want to focus on.”

Time Off Needed

Increased training and competition associated with sports specialization at an early age is a major concern. Young athletes need time off so their bodies can recover, but they often don’t get it.

A 2020 study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes between ages 7 and 18, particularly female athletes, are at higher risk for overuse injuries if they specialize in a single sport. Injury risk corresponded with hours spent training and performing.

Common overuse injuries include tendon and ligament injuries and muscle strains.

Specialization is especially risky in children younger than high school age, whose bones are still developing, Dr. Calcei says.

“Once the athlete is skeletally mature, it may be safer, but early sport specialization still leads to an increased risk of injuries and it doesn’t necessarily benefit athletic performance,” he says.

Individual Sports vs. Team Sports

Another study in 2019 noted that injury risk depends on the type of sport and level of specialization.

Kids participating in individual sports such as gymnastics and tennis are more likely to be highly specialized at younger ages than kids in team sports. The individual sports require higher levels of training and likely carry higher risk of overuse injuries.

But team sports such as baseball also feature early specialization, which has led to a rash of elbow and shoulder injuries from excessive throwing, Dr. Calcei says.

A rise in baseball overuse injuries led to the Ohio High School Athletic Association in 2017 to regulate pitch counts (125 pitches a day maximum) and days off between pitching appearances.

Keeping Kids in the Game

In the long run, rather than leading to scholarships and pro sports, intensive early sport specialization drives a lot of young people to quit.

“We love sports and they play a big role in a young person’s life,” Dr. Calcei says. “But you don’t want kids to lose the joy. Making sports fun, something they enjoy and want to keep doing is important. Making it a job for them often removes the fun factor, and may carry physical, mental and emotional risks.”

Related Links

There are fewer than 200 board-certified and fellowship-trained pediatric sports medicine physicians in the United States, but all of the pediatric sports medicine experts at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s have this specialized training. When pediatric sports injuries occur, accurate diagnosis and treatment are crucial to avoid long-term growth or developmental injury effects. Learn more about the specialized care available to young athletes at UH Rainbow Sports Medicine.

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