Specializing in Sports

How much sport is too much sport?

Sports can be a very important activity to help promote physical activity, socialization, and leadership in kids. But youth sports have become increasingly competitive at young ages, and research has shown some negative consequences of this change.

So in this Doctor’s Note, we’ll  discuss the downsides of specializing in one sport at too early an age, and how to combat some of these negative consequences.

What are the Risks of Focusing on Just One Sport?

Overuse Injuries 
The major risk of playing too much of one sport is that the body does the same motions over and over, often with incredible force. Over time, this repetition increases the risk of developing an overuse injury. Overuse injuries typically include injuries like tendonitis, stress fractures, or even more severe injuries that require surgery. Overuse injuries may lead to loss of playing time and even early retirement from a sport.

The prevalence of overuse injuries is hard to estimate, but some research suggests that as many as 46-50% of injuries in sports are related to overuse. One example is Tommy John surgery, which replaces a torn ligament in baseball pitchers and was once thought to occur only in professional pitchers due to excessive force, poor mechanics, and/or overuse. But currently, 57% of all Tommy John surgeries are on 15- to 19-year-olds!

Burn-Out 
A second major issue is that kids who focus on one sport are at greater risk of “burning out” and not wanting to play that sport any longer. With youth sports becoming more competitive at earlier ages, young kids (e.g. under 12 years old) are spending more time in organized sports and less time engaging in unstructured sports (playing without adults around).

Unstructured sports are often considered more fun and inclusive, and can be a way to prevent wanting to drop out of a sport. Current estimates suggest that 70% of children drop out of organized sports by age 13. Athletes who play more competitive sports compared to unstructured sports at young ages also experience more stress and anxiety.

What are the Benefits of Playing Multiple Sports?

Research shows more of a benefit from “early diversification,” or playing multiple sports when young. The theory is that each sport has a unique movement pattern, so playing these sports builds athletic skills that are transferrable to other sports. Early diversification also allows for more social growth (improveing social skills, leadership, and character traits) and development of an athlete’s intrinsic motivation for sports.

Won’t My Child Fall Behind if He/She Doesn’t Specialize?

With such difficult odds of your child getting a college scholarship or playing professionally, it makes sense — in theory — to try to maximize their time in one sport by playing against the best competition year-round. But the research does not support this choice,by showing that the best players in one sport at a young age often do not grow up to be the best in that sport later.

One study looked at players who competed in the little league World Series (which features the best 12-year-old international baseball players). Only 10% played minor league baseball as an adult, and only 1% made it to the Major Leagues. A similar study looked at national rankings of 12-year-olds in track and field and found that fewer than 30% who were nationally ranked were still ranked by age 20.

In 2018, the NFL boasted that 29 of 32 athletes drafted in the 1st round of the draft had played multiple sports in high school. Many current and former athletes (J.J. Watt, John Smoltz) and coaches (Urban Meyer, Dabo Sweeney, Joe Maddon) have also become vocal opponents to early sport specialization.

What Guidelines Should We Follow?

Here’s a summary of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine:

• Kids shouldn’t specialize in only one sport before they start puberty.

• Restrict hours per week in one sport to fewer than their age (For example: a 10 year old should spend fewer than 10 hours per week playing one sport)

• Kids should take off at least 3 months from one sport every year. (They doesn’t have to be three continuous months.)

• Having at least 1 to 2 days off per week from one sport can decrease risk of injury

• For baseball pitchers (who have very high rates of overuse injuries), pitches should be limited to fewer than 100 innings per year

• Playing multiple sports before puberty can help prevent overuse injuries and also improves overall athletic ability in all sports

• Allowing young kids time to play sports alone with only other kids and no adults around has been shown to prevent burn out

• It’s okay to specialize in only one sport by 15-16 years of age

As always, if you have any questions, give us a call in the office. We’re always happy to help.

Dr. Andy Georgeson has been a Kids Plus Provider since 2020.