Single Sport Specialization Not Recommended By Physicians

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert.

The athletic college scholarship.  For many parents, it is the holy grail of youth sports and the end goal that they set for their kids.  Clubs and coaches, wanting to win now, compete for the best players by convincing families that the sooner kids specialize in one sport, the better chance they have to land on a Division 1 roster.  Throw in the 10,000-hour theory, one of the most misunderstood ideas out there, and single sport kids are starting younger than ever. 

InfoGraphic on Overuse and Burnout Injuries in Youth Sports But physicians at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine are concerned that early specialization is the cause of several issues, including overuse injuries and psychological burnout for kids.  They recently released a report titled, "Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine," that provides parents with the latest research findings and recommendations.

They reviewed over 1,000 studies on youth sports injuries to gather the most complete set of statistics and identify risk factors, including the fact that 50% of all sports injuries are the result of overtraining the same muscles for too long.

“Not only are overuse injuries in young athletes likely much more common than is realized, these injuries can require lengthy recovery periods, and in some cases, they can result in long-term health consequences,” said John P. DiFiori, M.D., Chief of Sports Medicine and Non-Operative Orthopedics at UCLA.

Other findings and recommendations from the study included:
-  Having a previous injury increases the risk that it will happen again if overused.
-  Limit the number of hours of sport-specific repetitive movements each week and throughout the season.
-  Carefully monitor the training workload, especially during growth spurts in adolescence, when bones are more vulnerable.
-  Increase pre-season and pre-practice neuromuscular exercises which will reduce the rate of injury.

In fact, Dr. DiFiori found in a previous study that one-sport kids are not the norm when it comes to college scholarships. In a presentation last year, he reported on a survey of 296 NCAA Division 1 male and female athletes that found that 88% played two to three sports when they were young.  70% of them did not specialize in one sport until they were in their teens.

"Physical activity contributes to a happy and healthy childhood," said Dr. DiFiori. "However, parents, coaches, and children should monitor and measure their involvement level in a singular sport against the overall well-being and future success of the participant."

One rule of thumb that sports medicine specialists recommend is to keep the number of weekly hours of sport, both practice and games, to less than their age.  So, an 8-year-old should not exceed 8 hours of sports per week. Ideally, that time should be split evenly between organized sports and free play to provide a balance between the stressful demands of competition and the fun of just being a kid.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Mar 20 2014

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