Early Sport Specialization – Good or Bad???

Photo from functionizehealth.com.

Every year when athletes report to training camp they feel they are ready to begin a great new season. A few days into training camp the injuries begin to mount.  Why with all the safety initiatives seen implemented in recent years do severe injuries continue to mount? Several studies are underway to try to determine a reason.

Everyone has an opinion, the artificial turf being used instead of natural grass, change in off season training programs implemented by the last CBA, decreased number and duration of practices in general permitted in both the preseason and during the season. If you ask fans it is because the teams strength and conditioning staff need to be tarred and feathered or run out of town on a rail.

One issue that has not been looked at as much is the early specialization by athletes. Parents used to spend their lives running their kids to practices. Baseball in the summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter and perhaps track and field in the spring. This was a lot of work for parents and the kids, then a move to pick a single sport earlier was initiated in the late 90’s. Parents tried to decide what sport their child should excel in and rather than let them play all sports and decide for themselves. This lead to year round leagues for football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

Several studies are currently underway across all professional sports to try to determine if the trend to specialize early is actually leading to the increase in serious injuries being seen in recent years. One interesting tidbit that has already be discovered; there is a 77% decrease in the number of athletes entering college on a scholarship to play a particular sport who participated in more than one sport since 2005.

Photo from Dr. Martin Toms and twitter.com.

While injuries from participation may have decreased on the field, the benefits from multi-sport participation is lost. Improved conditioning and dexterity of the body overall is lost by the early specialization.  Over use is a concern, but lack of use is also a concern.

Players who play football exclusively starting at an earlier age are 10 times more likely to suffer a serious potential career ending injury than athletes who played multiple sports thru high school and college.

While injuries are a concern to everyone, and trying to make a sport safer is a great goal, the trend to have a student athlete pick a sport early to concentrate on, may or may not increase their skills for future success, most athletes polled in the NFL and MLB stated that early concentration on a single sport actually was a detriment to their long term career due to increased incidence of serious injury.

Another way that early specialization is a detriment is that the overall muscle and movement dexterity developed in athletes who participate in multiple sports is lost on single sport participants.  What I mean by this is reaching up to catch a pass is a different subset of muscles than the muscles used to bend and scoop a ground ball off the turf.  Different muscles are maximized in different sports.

More investigation needs to be done on this subject, but they may be onto something. I encourage my parents to let their kids be kids and to play all sports they are interested in.  Youth leagues are great and maybe the kid will find they like and are better at a sport than one their parents decided they would be great at playing.

Hopefully a definitive answer as to why the increase in injuries is occurring is found,  I think since it is a multi-sport issue, returning to playing multiple sports might actually decrease the serious injury rate and also produce better athletes for all sports.

Editor’s babble: Wondered about this for awhile now. Josh Allen played basketball and baseball as well as football in high school, so hopefully the cross-training will pay off for him in the NFL. Thanks to Dr. Beth Sullivan for her contributions to our blog. You can find Beth on Twitter @GAPeachPolymer.

About Beth Sullivan

I am a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan who grew up in Hamburg, NY but now lives outside Athens, GA. I have been married to a Patriots, Red Sox and Packers fan for over 30 years and we are the proud parents of 5 kids and 8 grandkids. I am a board certified osteopathic physician with over 20 years experience. I am also a polymer clay artist and create one of a kind polymer pieces for jewelry, and home decor. You can see some of my recent work on Instagram @georgiapeachpolymer. If you have an idea for a topic you would like to see covered, shoot me a message on Twitter @GAPeachPolymer

2 Replies to “Early Sport Specialization – Good or Bad???”

  1. Thank you Beth –

    I am a HUGE believer that kids must diversify playing sports as over use injuries are never going away unless there is a massive shift of thinking/acting within today’s parents. This may be an unpopular view by some of our readers, but if we want healthy change then the egotistical, all about me, living through their 10 year old kid’s athletic “career” parent of today needs to view this quantifying, black and white information as an undeniable wake up call!

    Stop trying to be your kids best friend! Stop with the travel soccer or hockey or basketball, etc., when their only 8, 9 or 10 years old! Not only are they subjective to over use injuries due to non cross training, but you as the parent (being sucked into this nonsense) are perpetuating this disgusting, brain washing belief that if “my little johnny or susie won’t make the varsity team as an eighth grader if he or she doesn’t play for this elitist travel team.” Oh and by the way, these travel teams only cost somewhere in the $8k just to be on the team! Don’t forget that “travel” teams means TRAVEL…….do these families think there isn’t a cost for gas, food, hotels, wear and tear on both vehicles as well as fracturing families as parents split their duties and spend way too much time away from each other!

    I have many more points to make, but I’ll stop here for now before my blood pressure goes up! Great topic Beth as over use injuries are due to kids not participating in multiple sports like we used to do.