Sports specialization is training exclusively in one sport, often year-round. Sports specialization as early as elementary school is becoming very common and has many parents wondering if the practice could have negative effects on their children’s bodies. Josh Hamann, MD, a sports injury specialist with Columbia Orthopaedic Group, answers some common questions about childhood sports specialization.
How have you seen adolescent athletic injuries change over the last few years?
Most commonly I see injuries from acute incidents on the field or court, but I have noticed that more kids are coming in with chronic injuries. A big problem I see is kids giving up other sports to focus on a single sport that they love. When this occurs before adolescence, it can lead to chronic overuse injuries that can have lasting effects. I see this mostly among baseball and softball athletes, but also soccer players, wrestlers, gymnasts and dancers.
Is it ok for kids to play the same sport year-round or should they take breaks?
Specializing in one sport has been shown in recent studies to place athletes at a higher risk of injuries. Technically, being “specialized” means playing one sport more than 8 months out of the year, while giving up other sports. From my standpoint, breaks are necessary for the young athlete to recover from an intense season. The bones, muscles and tendons need a chance to rest. This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting and playing video game – playing other sports places different strains on the body and allows other parts to heal.
What dangers do you see arising from children specializing in sports at a young age?
I think the biggest problem for kids who specialize too early would be burnout. If injuries mount up, they could steer a child away from playing the sport they used to love. The worst-case scenario is turning a child away from healthy activities by overdoing it.
In your opinion, does specializing in a sport at a young age give kids a better chance at being successful later on?
Personally, I don’t think so. There are many instances of professional athletes not specializing until later in their athletic development. A recent survey showed almost 80% of professional baseball players would not want their own children specializing in sports.
What are some warning signs to look out for?
Kids with lingering injuries and pains who play in a single sport for more than 8 months of the year should think about taking a break or changing sports for a season to help their bodies heal.
What advice do you have for parents who want to support their children's dreams, while still keeping them safe and healthy?
Being competitive and helping athletes advance their skills is not a bad thing – at some point every collegiate and professional athlete had to specialize. But parents and young athletes have to know the risks that early sport specialization brings. The mindset of more hours’ training leading to elite athletic status doesn’t translate perfectly to most sports. Studies have shown that specializing over the age of 15 is more likely to translate to elite status. Other studies show that having more unstructured time was more beneficial for young athletes than more practices, tournaments and competitions.