It’s not uncommon for kids to spend their free time running around with friends and playing sports. But over the past few decades, they have become increasingly likely to burn off excess energy through intense and competitive sports training.
Sports are a great way for kids to be active, pick up healthy habits and improve their teamwork skills, but keeping them in a single sport year-round can pose health risks. Early sports specialization – defined as intense training in a single sport for eight or more months out of the year – can lead to an increased risk of injury in children.
“Some athletes will be fine focusing on a specific sport,” said Kyle Cassas, M.D., sports medicine specialist with Prisma Health in Greenville. “It depends though, on age, training volume and intensity. There’s concern among sports medicine doctors and pediatricians about the risk of overuse injury, burnout and fatigue from not having time to recover.”
Some of the more common injuries connected to sports specialization include cartilage damage and stress fractures. Younger kids have open growth plates, which allow them to grow taller but can put them at risk for injuries such as little league elbow, an injury caused by overhead throwing.
One of the best ways to prevent overuse injuries is to participate in more than one sport. Multisport athletes can continue to compete and be active but avoid the repetitive movements of a single athletic activity. At the same time, each sport provides skills that improve overall athletic ability.
“Parents don’t always realize, for example, if you want to play basketball at a high level, soccer can give you better foot skills,” said Jana Upshaw, M.D., sports medicine physician at Winning Health in Mount Pleasant.
Dr. Upshaw had 18 years of experience in pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine before pursuing a sports medicine fellowship and has a special interest in sport specialization.
“Baseball can improve your hand-eye coordination. You can develop motor skills that will help with other sports and not necessarily at the detriment of the sport you want to focus on.”
Many professional athletes grew up participating multiple sports. Tennis pro John Isner played both tennis and basketball as a kid before deciding to focus on tennis after graduating from high school.
There is no general consensus on a specific age where it is permissible for kids to specialize in a sport. But children who haven’t finished growing appear to be more at risk for injury.
“It depends more on the individual’s musculoskeletal maturity level,” said Dr. Cassas. “When you have young kids that are doing sports like gymnastics and soccer starting at a very young age, you may be talking about 10 to 12 years of a continuous sport. If you get to high school, and you really want to specialize, you’ll be better off. The best approach would be to wait until you’ve reached musculoskeletal maturity before specializing.”
If your children start complaining about pain, that’s a sign to get them to a sports medicine physician for an evaluation. The doctor may recommend that they get more rest, so adding plenty of rest into their weekly schedule could keep the pain from appearing in the first place.
“It depends on the injury,” said Dr. Upshaw. “Sometimes we have to cast them. A lot of times we’ll rest them, but, sometimes as we rest them, we look for ways to help them continue with their motor development. So, for example, if they’re having arm pain, that’s a good time to focus on footwork for a few months.”
Sports medicine physicians are able to perform a functional movement screen, where a child is put through a series of movement patterns to determine potential risk of injury.
If you have a young athlete in your life, the best thing you can do is to be cognizant of the risks of early sports specialization. Make sure your kids play more than one sport and get plenty of rest and proper nutrition. And check in with a sports medicine physician to prevent and treat injuries that keep them off of the field or court.