Fort Worth, Texas,
14:58 PM

The epidemic of one-sport athlete injuries

The case for why your child shouldn’t play one sport

“My son plays fall baseball, spring baseball and was recently chosen for a summer select league.”

“My daughter plays select soccer and can’t afford to take any time off for her injury without the risk of losing her starting position on the team.”

Statements like this are commonplace in my world as a sports physical therapist. And while I genuinely believe that parents and coaches have their minds in the right place when it comes to wanting their child to be the best, the idea that this means you must specialize in your sport early in life is not supported.

Early sport specialization is defined as choosing to play only one sport, often without any breaks during the calendar year, while the body is still changing and growing.

As we are in the thick of another year of the NCAA college football national championship and bowl games, let’s revisit last year’s undisputed national champions as an example of one sport vs. multiple sport athletes. In early 2015, a social media post went viral detailing Urban Meyer’s recruiting record during his time as head football coach at Ohio State. Of his total of 47 recruits, 42 were multisport athletes in high school. Only 5 of his recruits played football alone.

Did you know?:

  • Three-time Super Bowl champion, NFL Hall of Famer and Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor inductee Troy Aikman played shortstop and pitched on his high school baseball team. He was drafted by the New York Mets out of high school and came close to choosing baseball over attending the University of Oklahoma, and later UCLA, to play football.
  • Two-time women’s soccer Olympic gold medalist and 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach credits her success as a soccer player to playing basketball in her youth.
  • Eight-time NBA All Star and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash did not start playing basketball until he was 12 or 13 and instead thanks his soccer background for his success in basketball.
  • Six-time MLB All-Star Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins played football, basketball, and baseball in high school and was named USA Today High School Player of the Year in multiple sports.

An athlete like Tiger Woods, who started playing golf before the age of 2, is an extremely rare occurrence. It is by no means the norm and should not be expected.

In theory, specializing makes sense. After all, practice makes perfect, right? Wrong! In reality, research has shown the following:

Early specialization leads to overuse injuries.

More and more orthopedic experts are speaking out to shine light on the world of pediatric sports injuries. They have become increasingly alarmed by the skyrocketing rates of injuries in kids and some go so far as to describe it as an epidemic. Each year, roughly 3.5 million children, 14 years of age and younger seek medical treatment for sports injuries.

Of these, at least half can be attributed to overuse injuries. Repetitive activity leads to increased stresses on a growing child’s bones and muscles and can result in injuries such as Little League elbow, Little League shoulder, shin splints, Sever’s disease, Osgood-Schlatter disease, runner’s knee, jumper’s knee, or even stress fractures in areas like the back (spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis), hips, and feet.

So what’s the first line of prevention? Rest. Children should have at least two months off each year to recover from their specific sport. And if we’re talking about baseball, it’s recommended for those athletes to have three to four months of absolutely no throwing or overhead sports.

Early specialization interferes with healthy growth and development.

Playing a competitive sport is stressful, and just as the body must adapt to the changes and demands physically, handling the stresses around winning, losing, practice schedules, traveling, etc… in addition to regular schoolwork can be emotionally draining as well. Children may also struggle with identity and view themselves as solely an athlete. Playing a wide range of sports promotes diverse relationships and allows for a wide variety of experiences.

Early specialization increases the risk of burnout.

Playing only one sport, especially at a competitive or select level, can lead to burnout as a result of stress and physical and emotional demands. A history of injuries can also increase that anxiety. If a sport stops being fun or a child feels pressured to succeed, it can certainly lead to a desire to quit.

Early specialization reduces the chance that children will maintain an active lifestyle as an adult.

In 2013, researchers from The Ohio State University released a study that found that children who specialized in one sport early in life were more likely to be inactive as adults. Committing to a certain sport at too young of an age can lead to early burnout, quitting, and being reluctant to then rejoin physical activities as an adult. A history of injuries also contributes to an aversion towards exercise and a preference for a sedentary lifestyle.

Early specialization doesn’t guarantee future athletic success.

Consider these statistics from the NCAA regarding athletes during the 2013-2014 school year.

                              Estimated Probability of Playing in College

  High School Athletes NCAA Athletes Overall % HS to NCAA
Football 1,093,234 71,291 6.5%
Women's Basketball 433,344 16,319 3.8%
Men's Basketball 541,054 18,320 3.4%
Baseball 482,629 33,431 6.9%


                           Estimated Probability of Playing Professionally

  NCAA Athletes Approx # Draft Eligible #Draft Slots #NCAA Drafted % NCAA to Major Pro
Football 71,291 15,842 256 255 1.6%
Women's Basketball 16,319 3,626 36 32 0.9%
Men's Basketball 18,320 4,071 60 47 1.2%
Baseball 33,431 7,429 1,216 638 8.6%

When you look at the numbers, the odds of playing a sport in college and especially professionally just aren’t in your favor.

So what does this mean for our kids?

  • No, we shouldn’t put them in a bubble and shield them from sports. Athletic activity is extremely important.
  • Children should learn the fundamentals of various sports and enjoy the experience.
  • Sports should be fun at every age.
  • Sports should create positive habits for later in life.
  • Sports shouldn’t cause repetitive injury.

And if your child happens to be one of the lucky few who go on to play in college or even professionally, a history of playing multiple sports is clearly of great benefit.

About the author

Melissa Bro, PT, DPT, SCS, is a physical therapist for the Cook Children's SPORTS Rehab program. 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. As a part of Cook Children's integrated pediatric health care system, our patients have access to a multitude of pediatric specialty areas with board certified doctors, as well as laboratory services, nutritional consultations and sports medicine counseling.

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