Youth sports specialization: How old is ‘too young?’

Dr. Luga Podesta, pictured here in his office at 1201 Piper Boulevard, Suite 24, argues against kids specializing in one particular sport.

BY LUGA PODESTA, MD

Parenting today has unique challenges, from keeping kids healthy in a time when “convenience food” is more readily available than ever before to keeping them safe on the Internet and active on an athletic field. These concerns and more are our modern-day crosses to bear.

Speaking of the athletic field (or, if you prefer, the court, rink, pitch or pool), sports medicine physicians are seeing an alarming rise in overuse injuries in younger athletes. We are treating adult injuries in younger and younger athletes. We are diagnosing injuries in younger athletes that we previously only saw in professional athletes.

Over the past several years, an ongoing debate has developed about sports specialization of children at younger and younger ages. A 2015 study commissioned by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association showed that there were more than 28.6 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 playing team sports — an increase of almost three million over the prior two years. However, there was a decline of the average number of sports played in the same time period from 2.09 to 1.89. Unfortunately, despite the growing amount of research indicating early sports specialization is harmful to the athletes, this trend continues.

Current research continues to show that it is better for young athletes and children to play multiple sports … for a number of important reasons.

Playing a single sport leads to injuries. Overuse or repetitive motion injuries result from a single athletic motion being performed over and over again. This is damaging to a young, skeletally immature growing body.

A perfect example is throwing a baseball (or anything else for that matter), specifically, the repetitive motion required to throw a baseball, and throw it hard. Repetitive throwing without adequate rest has led to the near epidemic rise in youth injuries to the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament. To repair the damage, doctors use “Tommy John Surgery” — named after the former New York Yankees pitcher. Previously, this injury had been typically seen in high level collegiate or professional players.

Baseball is not the only sport affected. Similar injuries to different joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons can occur in soccer, volleyball, softball and swimming to name only a few.

Single sport specialization also leads to burnout at a young age. Sports are supposed to be fun. When they become more competitive, time consuming, stressful and less fun, a young athlete’s enthusiasm begins to wane, and he or she may want to participate less.

Finally, becoming a one-sport athlete at a young age can potentially hinder physical and mental development, which can lead to various muscle imbalances. Diversity of play has been shown to enhance an athlete’s overall understanding of all sports.

Many parents believe that if their young athlete does not specialize in one sport and compete on elite club and travel teams year round, they will be at a significant disadvantage to obtain a college scholarship. Although this is a topic for another discussion, what drives parents to push their kids harder and harder at younger and younger ages comes down to economics. They just are not realistic regarding the numbers.

In the United States, of the 37 million kids that participate in youth sports, less than 22 percent will play for their high school team. Of the eight million kids who play high school sports, less than two percent will play Division I sports in college or receive scholarship money. Less than 0.08 percent of those same high school athletes will go on to play professional sports. 

A handful of collegiate coaches believe in focusing on one sport at an early age, as they feel an athlete will learn better skills in that one sport. However, multi-sport athletes have been found to exhibit better strength, coordination, speed, agility and overall fitness.

The American Journal of Sports Sciences published a study in 2013 concluding that athletes who played three sports were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level than athletes who specialized. In 2013, another study published by the American Society for Sports Medicine reported that 88 percent of surveyed collegiate athletes played more than one sport as a child.

First things first: kids playing sports is awesome. Please don’t mistake the concern here for recommendations of prohibition. In a time when America is deeply embattled in an obesity crisis, active children who become active adults is an absolute recipe for health success, and we applaud it — at every level, in every sport. What we’re talking about here is different. This is about our kids’ focus being narrowed to a single sport and hours upon hours of training in that sport.

When parents and coaches see young talent emerge in a child, there can be a propensity to push the young athlete to practice it to perfection. When sports stops being fun and becomes a job, kids can get hurt, become disinterested and/or drop out of sports altogether. 

The first step in reversing any potentially negative health trend is education — trying to help parents and coaches understand the risk of pushing a child into a single sport year round. The next step is policy in helping organized youth sports organizations develop and adhere to guidelines that protect the bodies and minds of young athletes.

We’re making great strides in both areas.

From Major League Baseball’s “Pitch Smart” program, which puts pitch count limits on young ball players dependent on their age, to concussion protocol training for coaches of youth football and soccer, we are getting there. By working together, we can cross the finish line.

There are also ways you can help as a parent. After all, you are your child’s biggest cheerleader and most vocal advocate. Instead of playing one sport all year, have your child take a two-to-three-month break from any sport and encourage them to explore a different one. Perhaps it’s baseball in the spring and soccer in the fall, or basketball in the fall and swimming in the spring.

A break in one sport and participation in another can expand the young athlete’s physical skills while simultaneously protecting them from overuse injury. This, perhaps, can also relieve some of the feelings of monotony or burnout that may arise with a focus on a singular sport, day in and day out.

It’s a generally held opinion among orthopedic and sports medicine specialists that sports specialization should, in most cases, be delayed until after puberty (around 16 years old). This helps to minimize the injury risks and can also correlate to a higher likelihood of a young athlete’s sports success.

As always, the primary focus for kids playing sports is to have fun, exercise their bodies and to learn some great self-awareness and team-building skills along the way. If you’re a parent of a young athlete who can check all of those boxes, that’s a job well done.

You can save the rest for much, much later.

Luga Podesta, a doctor with Bluetail Medical Group and sports medicine consultant for the Florida Everblades, has been a CollierSportsInsider.com advertiser since 2018.