Every town has the young soccer player who eats, sleeps and breathes her sport, dribbling and sprinting down the field at indoor and outdoor tournaments month after month, or the teen baseball phenom, who works hard on his pitching year-round, attending clinics, throwing in the backyard, and playing in games almost every weekend.
These young athletes may seem like they are having fun and doing what they love. But they are putting their bodies at risk by doing the same sport year-round, according to several studies conducted by WellSpan orthopedics and sports experts.
Specializing in one sport is a hot topic as kids return to regular playing seasons after the pandemic and as they turn their attention to the Olympic Games, which open Friday and feature athletes who play soccer, baseball, swim, do gymnastics, or participate full time in other sports.
What WellSpan research shows
The evidence is clear that kids who specialize in one sport at an early age are at an increased danger for injuries, said Dr. John Deitch, a WellSpan orthopedic surgeon. Deitch and his WellSpan colleagues – including Chelsea Bush, an orthopedics research associate, and Changryol Choi, a licensed athletic trainer – have confirmed and documented this danger through several studies involving professional baseball players, elite wrestlers, and weightlifters.
The studies all surveyed athletes to ask when they started specializing in one sport at the exclusion of other sports and how it impacted their health. For example, the study of wrestlers found that elite wrestlers who specialized in wrestling prior to age 12 years old sustained a greater number of serious injuries before starting college than those who specialized in wrestling at or after the age of 12.
For Deitch, this isn’t just an academic topic. He is the parent of three young athletes, has coached locally and served as the director of safety and wellness for York Young Revolution, a travel baseball organization. He knows firsthand the lure of year-round sports participation and its potential downside, especially for the youngest competitors.
What can happen to 1-sport athletes
“Early sports specialization can lead to the three O’s – overuse, overload, and overexertion. They contribute to many preventable sports injuries that can have long-term effects and end careers before they really start,” Deitch said. “It is an increasingly common phenomenon in youth sports. Parents and coaches need to take an active role in encouraging kids to try different sports and to live a balanced athletic life.”
Deitch sees the effects of early sports specialization regularly in his WellSpan orthopedics practice, including kids who may need surgery because they have damaged the growth plates in their shoulders or elbows, and kids who develop stress fractures or pain in a knee that make it nearly impossible to run or jump, let alone compete in a sport. He also sees the emotional toll of burnout when athletes lose their love for sports.
What parents can do
Deitch practices what he preaches with his own kids, who have tried a wide variety of sports, including swimming, soccer, taekwondo, horseback riding, baseball, basketball, volleyball, track, and dance, some for one season and some for longer periods. As a parent, he wants his kids to relax and have fun. If they are struggling to do either, he knows it’s time for a change.
Here are Deitch’s tips for building a balanced, healthy athlete in your household
- As a rule of thumb, the total hours of organized sports per week should be less than your child’s age to help prevent overuse injuries.
- Do not ignore symptoms or play through pain. Seek help if you have persistent pain in a joint or muscle (more than four days), or pain that occurs from a specific activity or motion.
- Take time during the year to rest and recover after a season. Try something different in the off-season.
- Make sure you are getting proper nutrition, with adequate hydration and protein intake.
- Make sure you are getting proper rest. The average teenager, from age 13 to 18, requires about eight to 10 hours of sleep a night.
- Take time for fun. Play backyard wiffleball with your family, ride your bike with friends, enjoy down time, and listen to music or watch a movie.
- Develop the fundamental movements that are the foundations for all sports. Supervised strength-training is helpful. Consider trying a sport or activity that moves other muscles than the ones you most often use in your chosen sport. If you swim, try running. If you play soccer, try golf.
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