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Single sport specialization can be dangerous for young athletes

Parents can be motivated to keep their children in one sport by the prospect of scholarships or their child “making it big” and becoming professional athletes. What many don’t realize is that their children can be more likely to suffer from injuries by only participating in one sport.  

In a recent study of 1,200 young athletes conducted by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi from Loyola University, single sport specialization was one of the strongest predictors of injury. As reported in an article on the dangers of single sport specialization from Changing the Game Project, “Athletes in the study who specialized were 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.”

The injuries sustained during the childhood of a young athlete can be life-altering. In an interview with Katie Coombs on her radio show “Uncommon Sense,” Dr. Christopher Dolan an orthopaedic surgeon with Great Basin Orthopaedics explained the dangers of single sport specialization. “The number of injuries we are seeing are going up in young athletes. [In America] we see something like 3.5 million injuries a year in people under the age of 14 and more than 50 percent of them are considered overuse injuries.”

Dr. Dolan is a member of  STOP Sports Injuries, an organization dedicated to ending traumatic and overuse injuries in children’s sports, created by the American Orthopaedic society for Sports Medicine, which says that overuse injuries “are the result of repetitive micro-trauma to the tendons, bones, and joints.” These injuries can remove players from the field as well as their academics, leaving these young athletes out of practice and school for days or even weeks at a time.  “Dr. Dolan spent three hours checking out my son’s shoulder and determined that he was no longer ever going to be able to throw a baseball again… just before his senior year of high school,” said Coombs.

All sports played by young athletes come with the chance of injury, but baseball seems to be the most prominent. “A lot of the sports are guilty, baseball gets most of the heat,” said Dr. Dolan. “They don’t have a diagnosis called ‘soccer foot’, but they do have Little League shoulder, and Little League elbow, and a lot of that falls to coaching and doing it right.” Because of the nature of baseball and the unique movements and training required for the sport, athletes may be more prone to overuse injury.

Dr. Dolan shares that the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “The specialization of sports before puberty is directly correlated with a higher incidence of overuse injuries. They’ve shown that the young athletes that play diverse sports, actually play at a higher level, for a longer period of time, and experience less injuries, and that’s because of using different motions, different body parts, and taking breaks.”

There are more dangers in early single sport specialization than just the injury factor. Students are less likely to be chosen for college teams if they specialize in only one sport. Ohio State University recently shared an infographic stating that 42 of their football recruits played multiple sports in high school while only five of them played only football. Jack O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, also notes in his post on the perils of single sport specialization that, “A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.”

There are several reasons children should diversify their sports education. Here are some collected by O’Sullivan for the Changing the Game Project.

  • Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
  • Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision-making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high-level teams look for.
  • 10,000 Hours is Not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4,000), field hockey (4,000) and wrestling (6,000) all require far less than 10,000 hours.
  • There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3,000 of those hours were involved in hockey-specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

“Many parents believe that by encouraging their child to focus on one sport that they’re encouraging dedication and perseverance. What many of them may not realize is that they could be harming their children, as well as their children’s futures,” said Dr. Dolan. “Encouraging children to be active in multiple sports at once will give them a competitive advantage should they decide to continue playing sports at a collegiate or professional level.”