Should Youth Athletes do just one Sport?
As the fall approaches, summer sports such as football, soccer, and baseball will wind down and transition to winter sports. This time of year, when I was a youth, always brought a common conversation with my parents. This conversation was in regards to whether or not I was going to sign up for a winter sport. It was common for my friends and I to play up to 3 or 4 sports per year.
These conversations are not as common with youth athletes now, as specializing in one sport is becoming a very popular trend. One main reason for specializing in one sport throughout the entire year means more time for the athlete to spend focusing on that particular sport, thus accelerating their progress in that sport. Research, however, is showing that there are possible physical, social, and behavioral risks to specializing in one sport.
Overuse injuries in youth sports are on the rise as time on the field is continuing to increase. This is particularly a concern in youth because their bodies have not developed enough to take the forces of the increased demands on the body. An overuse injury occurs when there is an overloading force on the tissues of the body. These tissues include muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and growth plates.
It has been shown that youth athletes who play a single sport have a greater likelihood of injury than athletes who play multiple sports. This is particularly easy to see in sports such as baseball. Throwing throughout the year puts an increased demand on the arm and can potentially cause injury to the shoulder or elbow.
A study released earlier this year by the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that specialized athletes at the high school level were more likely to report a history of overuse knee and hip injuries. Although this particular study had a smaller sample size, it was apparent that participating in a sport for more than 8 months of the year was an important factor in increased risk for injuries with specialized athletes.
Increasing the risk for overuse injuries is not the only risk that occurs with single spors specialization in youth athletics. Increasing time and focus to one sport can make the sport feel like a job rather than recreation. This increases the likelihood of burning out on the sport and consequently quitting the sport.
Playing multiple sports increases the ability to develop skills for different sports that can help with other sports. There have been professional football players that take ballet lessons in the offseason. One particular player states that ballet was harder than anything else he does. The ballet helps the athlete develop finesse, speed, balance, and strength. With this in mind as a youth, I approached my aunt who is a dance teacher about taking classes in order to improve my skills for the football field. I was more of a clumsy lineman, and that idea didn’t last more than one dance practice with her!
Although there are benefits from specializing in one sport, it has become apparent to me that there is an advantage for our youth athletes to play multiple sports. It is common for high profile collegiate coaches to particularly recruit multi-sport athletes over specialized athletes. It is important for our parents, coaches, and athletes to discuss these risks and choose what is best for each particular athlete. Whether a specialized or multi-sport athlete, overuse injuries can occur. Seeking out your local physical therapist can help in the healing process of injury, along with preventing injuries in youth sports.
Justin Longhurst, DPT
Utah Physical Therapy – West Haven