Sports specialization can have a detrimental effect on young athletes

When a young kid shows an early talent for a sport, it’s easy to want to focus solely on developing that talent via sports specialization.

It’s become much more common in recent years for a child to go through intense training in one sport and exclude all others. Many parents believe the best way to have an elite athlete is to master that sport from a young age.

However, studies have shown early sport specialization can actually have detrimental effects to an athlete, including burnout and increased risk of injury, and typically does not lead to college scholarships or professional contracts.

Sports are a great tool to foster confidence, leadership, and social relationships. However, kids are put under an immense amount of pressure to compete and achieve. The constant stress of sports specialization can take a toll on athletes mentally to the point they no longer enjoy participating in the activity, and many athletes will quit due to burnout.

Early success is also not a guarantee that a child will have later success in a sport. Only two percent of male and female athletes receive partial or full college sports scholarships (Malina, 2010). Even smaller percentages move on to become professional athletes and research has shown early specialization is not a factor in elite development.

Overuse injuries is another significant issue that is much more likely in athletes who have undergone intense training from sports specialization. Dependent on the sport, more repetitive stress is put on certain muscles and ligaments because the same muscle groups are used for specific motions. For example, a baseball pitcher is more likely to put stress on the elbow, while a soccer player is more likely to put stress on the knee.

Before puberty, our bodies are not mature enough to be able to withstand repetitive stresses and many of the injuries we typically have seen in older athletes are occurring at younger ages. By participating in a variety of sports throughout growth it allows the whole body to mature to avoid muscular imbalances that can cause long-term consequences.

Strategies can be put into place to help keep young athletes injury free in any circumstance. Correcting improper movement patterns can lessen the trauma due to repetitive motions.

It is also important to utilize rest days in order to let the body recover and good sleep patterns can also help reduce injury. Lastly, cross training can help avoid burnout and help with developing underutilized muscles.

Better education for coaches and parents is necessary to avoid the negative effects of sport specialization. As a general rule, kids should only practice a sport for as many hours as they are old – so a 12 year old should be limited to 12 hours per week of a sport to avoid over training.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to delay sport specialization until after puberty which minimizes injury risk and maximizes future athletic success. So encourage your kids to mix it up and have fun!

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Article by Jenna Stones, DPT. Jenna is a physical therapist and movement specialist at CORE Strategies Physical Therapy, Sports Performance & Medical Fitness located in Overland Park.  The CORE team specializes in rehabilitation and performance training for clients of all ages and activity levels.  To learn more about CORE’s sport specific programs visit www.coreptkc.com.  Contact Jenna at jenna@coreptkc.com.

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