If you are a parent, teacher or if you simply know kids, you can probably name a few who play a single sport year-round or at the competitive club level. You may be impressed by their dedication to one sport and rigorous training schedules, but you may also be surprised to learn that the very dedication and rigor you admire could be causing more harm than good.
According to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, approximately 55 percent of all sports injuries are due to overuse. In fact, in a study of more than 2,500 high school athletes, there was a clear relationship between the number of hours a teen participated in a single sport and the risk of injury. Specifically, training more than 16 hours per week led to a significant risk of injuries that required medical care.
Young athletes and their parents are often confronted with the choice of playing multiple recreational sports with breaks between each season or moving on to the more competitive — and usually more costly — club or travel teams that play a single sport throughout the year.
It is often a child’s advanced skill that will influence a coach or parent to consider moving that player up to competitive-level play. Sometimes, it is the result of a parent wanting a child with average skills to quickly advance to the next level or the hope that competitive youth sports will lead to a college athletic scholarship. Some even dream of turning pro, which can cause a parent to push for advanced training and teams. Whatever the reason, such single-sport specialization is resulting in a rise in injuries, both mental and physical.
“Sport specialization and the related pressures seem to have become more common,” says Dr. Benjamin Saben, a sports medicine physician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Allowing a young athlete to play more than one sport or simply cross-train improves physical skill sets and gives both a mental and physical break to avoid overuse, overtraining and burnout.”
Kickin’ it old school — the benefits of multiple sports and unstructured play
Participation in multiple sports can improve motor skills and increase athletic development, length of playing careers, motivation and enjoyment. Student-athletes who play more than one sport are better able to transfer their sports skills from one sport to another.
What’s more, experts have found that specializing in a single sport from an early age does not increase a young athlete’s chance of getting a college athletic scholarship or even playing college-level sports. In fact, a 2013 study found that 88 percent of athletes playing for a college team played more than one sport as a child.
So what should parents do to help their child avoid overuse injuries? It may be as simple as doing what our parents did: tell them to just go out and play.
Children should play games and participate in activities that are fun and varied. They should take regular breaks from organized sports and never be pushed to “play through” pain. If a child shows promise in a specific sport, they ought to avoid spending more than 80 percent of their play time on that sport.
Most importantly, make sure it is the young athlete’s choice to play a sport because the child enjoys it, rather than because a parent or coach demands it.