(April, 2021) Need a sure sign of spring? You’ll find it on Saturday mornings at the ballpark and soccer fields these days. Some of these young athletes may be playing not just during a traditional season but year-round, with club travel leagues starting as early as 7. But is sports specialization in children a healthy choice?
What is Sports Specialization?
The past twenty years have brought a significant shift from unstructured free play and school-based sports to what’s called “sport specialization.” The numbers are astounding: close to 30 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 and close to 60 million in organized programs are participating in year-round sports.
Conventional wisdom may lead us to think kids will fall behind their peers if not putting in the “10,000 hour rule” of practice making perfect. But the growing intensity of this early specialization may lead to more harm than good. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine * has found the trend alarming enough to define a list of risk factors associated with overuse injuries in young athletes.
Know the Risk Factors for Overuse Injuries
- Participation in intense training and/or competition in their sport more than eight months per year.
- Participation in one sport to the exclusion of others or free play.
- Playing their sport for more hours per week than their age.
Do any of these hit close to home? Overuse injuries we see in young athletes include knee disorders with soccer, basketball, and volleyball players. Shoulder injuries include “Little League Shoulder” due to repetitive pitch counts for pitchers and the intensity of throws catchers must make during a game. “Little League Elbow” often results from high-throwing volume. Racket sports and gymnastics also fall into the year-round sport specialization/overuse injury loop.
Mix it Up – and Don’t Forget Free Time Too
Finding the right balance in training and competition is a tough topic for coaches and parents, who may feel pressured to keep up… and keep their child’s spot on the team. Clearly, our children find enormous benefit from individual and team sports – with physical development, socialization, teamwork, and a strong work ethic. But too much of a good thing also leads to psychological burnout and loss of motivation. What’s the answer? Limit practice, ensure plenty of rest, and keep it fun! Mix up other sports, and find time for free play, too. We all want our children to succeed on the field of play – without preventable injuries.