Single Sport Specialization: Does It Really Make Your Child Better?
SPORTS Physical Therapist looks at trend of young athletes playing 1 sport
These days many of kids' sporting associations, coaches and sometimes even parents seem to treat kids as little adults. However, kids are not just small adults. Children are still growing, which makes them more prone to injury. They also are developing their strength, coordination and endurance as they grow. Kids participating in sports together, even though they may be the same age, vary in size as well as physical and psychosocial maturity.
In SPORTS, we’ve noticed an increasing trend of children specializing in sports earlier on in their lifetime. Often times, parents, coaches and kids think that the earlier they specialize and spend increasing amounts of time in one sport, the higher the chance they have of making it to “The Big Time.”
The truth is, specialization prior to adolescence can cause increased injury rates, early burn out on the sport, as well as unwanted psychological stress for the athlete.
Counter to current trends, studies have shown that athletes at the elite level were more likely to start competing at a later age and compete in sports other than the one they went pro in until late adolescence. Research also supports that children who participate in a variety of activities and don’t specialize until reaching puberty are more likely to be more consistent in their performance.
Participating in a variety of sports helps with coordination, skill development and gives the child a chance to rotate use of specific muscles to decrease the risk of overuse injuries.
It’s important for athletes, parents, and coaches to be aware of the signs and symptoms of an overuse injury. These can include:
- Changes in form
- Decline in performance
- Weight loss
- Sleep disturbances.
Children also have the added risk of injuring their growth plates. What may cause a sprained ankle in an adult has the potential to fracture a growth plate in a child. These injuries have the possibility to disturb growth of the injured bone and cause deformity. A young athlete should never attempt to “push through” an injury. Too much stress on the bones or muscles can lead to tissue breakdown and further injury.
To prevent overuse injuries, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends:
- Delay sports specialization until at least age 15-16 to minimize risks of overuse injury.
- Encourage participation in multiple sports.
- If a young athlete has decided to specialize in a single sport, a pediatrician should discuss the child's goals to determine whether they are appropriate and realistic.
- Parents are encouraged to monitor the training and coaching environment of "elite" youth sports programs.
- Encourage a young athlete to take off at least three months during the year, in increments of one month, from their particular sport. They can still remain active in other activities during this time.
- Young athletes should take one to two days off per week to decrease chances of injury.
Young athletes should be followed by a health care team who can monitor the athlete’s body composition, cardiovascular system, sexual maturation, and evidence of emotional stress. It is recommended that children participating in high levels of activities have an ongoing nutritional assessment to look at total calories, balanced diet, and intake of calcium and iron to ensure adequate intake for growth.
If at any time your young athlete is having pain or any of the symptoms above, please seek appropriate medical attention.
Amanda Stukey, PT, DPT, SCS, is a physical therapist for the SPORTS program at Cook Children's. Our physicians, therapists, nurses and technologists work exclusively with kids and understand the unique needs of a growing athlete's bones, muscles, body and mind.