Some children just want to be the best, whether it’s in school, in their social circles or on the playing field. When it comes to sports, many young athletes and their parents believe that focusing on one sport for at least three seasons—a phenomenon known as sport specialization—is the way to go for college scholarships or even lucrative professional contracts. In fact, a 2017 study published in Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that more than 4 out of 10 high school athletes specialize in a single sport, playing it exclusively for at least three seasons out of the year.
It stands to reason that more practice and playing time leads to greater skills. However, athletes and parents need to realize that it can also lead to greater risk of injury. A 2017 study of more than 1,500 Wisconsin high school athletes indicated that athletes who specialized in one sport were more than twice as likely as others to sustain an overuse injury to a lower extremity.
Does that mean that sports specialization is bad, or dangerous? Not necessarily, as long as parents, coaches and the athletes themselves take steps to guard against overuse injuries.
What Are Overuse Injuries?
Overuse injuries are those that develop over time. They are different from acute injuries in that acute injuries are generally the result of one traumatic event, such as a fall, a tackle or being hit by a pitch. Both can affect bone, muscles, tendons, ligaments or cartilage, but it’s how they happen that’s different.
One practice session or game is not going to cause an overuse injury. Rather, they build up over time—seasons or even years. For example:
- The repetitive footfalls of running may start to inflame muscle, tendon and bone around the shins
- Rotator cuff tendons can gradually fray as an athlete throws pitch after pitch
- A soccer player rolls her ankle a few times a month, and each time the ligament loosens just a little bit
All these small traumas add up. And, if an athlete is doing one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports, they’re going to add up quicker. At least if different sports were played, there would be some variety to the musculoskeletal system stressors that are experienced.
That said, sports specialization is not an automatic recipe for injury. Take a look at these tips to keep yourself or your young athlete safe as when they participate in a single sport.
Stretch and Strengthen
Warming up and cooling should be a part of every exercise, practice or play session for athletes of any age and any sport. It’s especially important for those who specialize in one sport because of their greater risk of injury.
Warm-ups should be done before every practice or game to wake up the muscles and get the blood flowing. You wouldn’t take a car from a dead stop right to 60 miles per hour on a cold day. Jumping right into a scrimmage or loading up a barbell with your working sets is the equivalent for your body.
A good warm-up routine will involve light cardiovascular exercise to get the blood moving, as well as dynamic stretching to get your body comfortable with the range of motion you’ll be using in your sport. Once you’ve got a light sweat going, you’re ready to get to work.
After your workout, practice or game, take five to 10 minutes to cool down. This is a good opportunity for static stretching, which is what most people think of when they hear the term “stretch.” Stretching can cut down on muscle soreness and it will improve your ability to move the next time you take the field.
A solid strength and conditioning routine is essential to not only maximizing your athletic potential, but also to staying safe and preventing injury. Strong muscles support your other structures—ligaments, tendons, cartilage, etc.—better and protect them. Being strong also can improve your balance, reducing the risk of falling.
Finally, if you specialize in one sport, you run the risk of muscle imbalances from performing the same activities over and over, which can lead to injury. A good strength and conditioning program will take those imbalances into account and will focus on minimizing or eliminating them.
Switch It Up
If you are an athlete—or the parent of an athlete—who loves a particular sport, then by all means do it often. However, it would be wise to consider playing a different sport for at least one season, or even changing position in the same sport for a time. If you’re an offensive lineman in football, try defensive end. If you always play second base in softball, give the outfield a shot. It will develop your skills in different directions and can cut down on overuse injuries if the sport or position is different enough
It’s also important to keep in mind that early sport specialization may not be the path to higher levels, like Division I college sports or professional sports. A 2016 study published in Sports Health looked at 343 Division I athletes and found that only 17 percent were specialized in ninth grade. Even as seniors, fewer than half played only one sport.
If you’re a young athlete who has specialized in a sport and is looking for resources to stay safe, I recommend STOP Sports Injuries, which has recently partnered with the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. It is a helpful resource for athletes and parents alike looking for a better understanding of overuse injuries.
In my practice, I have treated hundreds of athletes for sports overuse injuries. If you are an athlete or the parent of an athlete experiencing a sports injury, I can help. Request an appointment with me or one of my colleagues to discuss your treatment options.