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Two studies presented at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has medical professionals, including physical therapists, taking a closer look at young athletes and the unhealthy trend toward sports specialization.
“It used to be that fall was football and volleyball, winter was basketball, and spring was baseball and track,” said physical therapist Paul Drumheller, owner of 3Dimensional Physical Therapy & Sports Conditioning in Tacoma. “Now, young athletes are playing one sport for at least three out of four seasons a year.”
Sports specialization is defined as engaging in a sport for at least three seasons a year at the exclusion of other sports. Such an approach to sports can actually harm a young athlete, leading to overuse injuries.
According to Drumheller, often when a child starts to show potential in a single sport, “parents get involved. We see it daily in the clinic.”
A study titled “Quantifying Parental Influence on Youth Athlete Specialization: A Survey of Athletes’ Parents” supports this. It found that 57.2 percent of parents hoped for their children to play collegiately or professionally. One-third of respondents said their children only played a single sport, and about 80 percent hired personal trainers when they felt their kids had collegiate- or professional-level potential.
Unfortunately, specialization for young athletes means repeated types of motions on certain joints over and over again. On a body that’s still growing and developing, this results in more stress on the joints and the higher risk of injury.
It’s been estimated that up to 60 million U.S. youths ages 6 to 18 years participate in some form of athletics. More than 5 million of these athletes experience an injury each year. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least 50 percent of athletic injuries are related to overuse, the types of injuries for which one-sport athletes are particularly prone.
In reaction, Drumheller offers the following tips to help parents and coaches minimize overuse injuries:
Encourage Diversity: Especially at an early age, encourage kids to try out and play different sports throughout the year. Some of the most successful athletes (up to 97 percent of the pros) believe being a multisport athlete was beneficial to their long-term success.
Seek Rest: Young athletes should take at least one to two days off from practice and/or structured sports participation each week. Some experts suggest limiting weekly practice to the age (in hours) of the athlete. Long-term, athletes should take 2 to 3 months off a sport each year to help refresh the body and the mind.
Specialize Later: Wait until at least high school age – better yet, around the ages of 16 or 17 – before considering specializing in any individual sport. At this point, the body is more prepared for such rigors.
Watch for Signs: If a young athlete complains of nonspecific problems with muscles and/or joints, physical fatigue, or grows concerned about poor performance, visit a health professional such as a physical therapist, who can fully evaluate the issue and offer treatment (if needed) for any potential injuries or deficiencies.
“Young athletes are not focused on scholarships,” Drumheller said, pointing out that the average interest a child shows in a sport is about 6 years. “They are focused on having fun with their friends.”