Jeanne Bellezzo by Jeanne Bellezzo

Sports can benefit kids in so many ways, from getting physically fit and developing athletic skills to building confidence and making new friends. Excelling in a favorite sport is not only fun and challenging, it may also lead to high-level competition or athletic scholarships.

However, focusing exclusively on a single sport such as football or soccer may have negative consequences. Many physicians and sports medicine experts believe that specializing in one sport may put young athletes at risk of both physical injuries and emotional burnout.

While trauma is certainly a consideration, especially in contact sports, the bigger concern is overuse injury. By playing just one sport, athletes are continually using the same muscles over and over. Not only are those muscles potentially being overworked, the surrounding muscles that help support the ligaments and joints and bones are not being used enough.

Hold Off on Specializing

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that young athletes minimize the risks associated with specialization by waiting until age 15 or 16 to focus on a specific sport. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine also stated that specializing at a young age offers no benefit in most sports.

Last year, a study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that high school athletes who played a single sport may have a 50 percent greater risk of injury; the most common injuries included 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 than others, and trained for their sport more than eight months out of the year.

Shaun Berger, MD, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist with Scripps Clinic in San Diego, agrees. “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,” he says, adding that the winning pitcher for the Little League Softball World Series pitched nearly 500 pitches in eight days. “At her age she should only be pitching 75 pitches a week, including practice.”

Mix it Up and Take Time Off

Young athletes are advised to play a variety of sports to avoid overtaxing certain muscles and joints, add balance to their workouts and avoid the burnout that often comes with intense focus on a single activity. Kids who participate in team sports could benefit physically and mentally from trying individual sports such as swimming or martial arts, and vice versa. 

Parents and even kids themselves may not recognize subtle signs of injury or overuse until the damage has been done, or they want to play through their injuries, says Dr. Berger. But ignoring the early warning signs can have long-term consequences.

“If it hurts, your body is telling you something. Resting now can help prevent longer recovery times or even worse injuries in the future,” says Dr. Berger. “Sometimes taking time off to recover can get you back to playing at 100 percent sooner.” 

A good rule of thumb for training is to increase intensity, duration or frequency of activity by no more than 10% from week to week. In addition, young athletes who specialize should be sure to do some type of cross-training to work different muscles and give the others a rest. Finally, take at least one day of rest a week to recover—a smart guideline for adults as well as kids.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers the following recommendations for young athletes and their parents:

  • Discuss the decision to specialize with your pediatrician or family doctor, who can help determine if a 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.

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