Girls and Sports Specialization – Mix it Up!

Girls and Sports Specialization – Mix it Up!

Joanne Baird, MD

As a former collegiate soccer player and now an orthopaedic sports medicine surgeon, women’s sports have always been dear to my heart.  I’m now mom to a young daughter enjoying her own venture into sports.   At her age, my heart was set on ballet slippers, not cleats.   But by 4th grade, I discovered soccer just as Mia Hamm was starring on our women’s national team.  Nike had an ad starring Mia dancing in the grass, not ballet slippers.  Soccer was fun, freeing, competitive, and everything to me dance was not.  By 5th grade as I juggled both loves, my dance instructor said it was time to focus on one or the other. I picked up my ball and never looked back.   

Later, I played soccer at the College of William & Mary while studying pre-med.  Basketball had a season of my attention, even track and lacrosse for a bit, but soccer was always my first love. That passion for athletics made orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine a natural career choice .  Looking back, I realize I was specializing at a young age. Soccer was year round, often on more than one team between club and school.  Fortunately, severe injuries were never an issue beside multiple ankle sprains.  

We know much more now about sport specialization and the detriment to adolescent athletes.

Why is Sport Specialization a Concern?

Most of the research on sport specialization comes from male sports, particularly little league baseball. Injuries increase due to repetitive motion and trauma to the muscles. By playing different sports, a variety of muscles are used and joints aren’t stressed in the same way, which protects a growing athlete.  Additionally, periods of rest are encouraged to allow the young musculoskeletal system to heal and grow properly.

Women Athletes Suffer More Overuse Injuries

There is very little literature, however, on the effects of sport specialization in adolescent female athletes.  We do know, however, that women athletes (not adolescents alone) tend to have more overuse injuries, and severe injuries that require surgery more often than comparable male sports.  Women aged 5-17 sustain a larger percentage of overuse injuries than males and are 3 times more likely to have patellofemoral knee pain (the kneecap).  There are distinct physiologic differences between males and females that contribute to the injury patterns, rates of overuse injuries vs traumatic injuries and the severity of injury that are not yet entirely understood. A recent study further strengthened the connection between injury and sport specialization, finding greater risk of concussions, stress fractures, and injuries overall. 

Overuse Injury Prevention is the Goal

As a former fellow of the great Dr. James Andrews, I carry his passionate concern for the impact of sport specialization and injuries.   Much of his career has been spent benefiting young athletes from advocating pitch count limits in youth baseball to 2010’s STOP Sports Injuries campaign recognizing the importance of injury prevention. 

I hope my daughter falls for a variety of sports like I did.  Athletics are an invaluable experience for girls, building confidence in reaching a personal best, creating priceless team memories, or even taking them to a college playing field and beyond.  My daily goal is not only returning young athletes to the playing field, but preventing injuries before they happen.

April, 2023