It continues to amaze me how different athletics are now compared to when I played sports in high school.  Back in my teen years (15 years ago), I played volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and softball in the summer. My summers consisted of basketball and volleyball leagues each one day/wk and a sports camp for a few days. Of course, our athletes experienced injuries such as ankle sprains and ACL tears, but the overuse injuries and frequency of injured athletes was much less.  In today’s world, athletes specialize early on in one sport and participate in that sport year round.  Occasionally, kids play in both club leagues and school leagues at the same time.  There is no off-season to allow for both physical and mental rest.  Our bodies perform better and become stronger when we do have an appropriate recovery time. Doing the same activity repeatedly, especially high loading sport-specific movements in growing athletes, will eventually lead to tissue breakdown and cause pain. I see a lot of this at our OSI Physical Therapy clinic in Forest Lake.

Research indicates that athletes should not specialize in one sport until late adolescence. The problem with this recommendation is “late adolescence” is not clearly defined and can range from the ages of 15-20 years old.  To prevent an overuse injury, psychological burnout, but still be competitive in the sport, I would recommend young athletes to participate in multiple sports and allow for a few months rest from each sport during the year. My high school coach always said participating in multiple sports makes you a better athlete.  Research actually supports this!  Essential physical and mental skills do transfer between sports and multi-sport athletes are shown to reach a more elite status in one sport compared to those who specialize early on.  Look at Joe Mauer who was offered a full scholarship to play football in college but chose to play professional baseball.  In this year’s NFL draft, 26 of the 31 first round picks played multiple sports. And, this has been a common trend in the draft over the last three years.

Unfortunately, athletes today are encouraged to specialize in order to be the best at their sport. However, looking at the research, participation in one sport really doesn’t help you become the best.  Playing sports should be about having fun, interacting with other teammates, and learning other life skills that go along with being on a team.  Being on a winning team is definitely more enjoyable than a losing one, but if you are injured or burnt out by high school, early specialization is probably not worth it.

Nyland, John. “Coming to Terms with Early Sports Specialization and Athletic Injuries.” J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2014;44(6):389-390.

– Nicole

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Troubles With Sports Specialization For Young Athletes


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