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It’s common for student-athletes and parents alike to assume that focusing on one sport in high school will lead to greater chances of success on the college or professional scene. But this may not be the case.
A study done by the University of Wisconsin is one of the first of its nature, but it could be a warning for parents in the future. It was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine just this month.
Eric Post, research assistant at the Wisconsin Injury Sports Lab and coauthor of the study, got involved in this research as he noticed an increased trend in youth sports towards early specialization.
The study focused on 302 high school student-athletes. They were put into categories based on their specialization, or the number of sports they participated in. Of the 302, 105 (34.8%) ranked as low specialization, 87 (28.8%) were moderately specialized, and 110 (36.4%) were defined as being highly specialized.
The research team found that athletes from smaller schools were much more likely to fall into the low specialization category. Only 25% of athletes from smaller schools were recognized as being high specialization, while 48% of the students at large school fell into the same category.
It also revealed that athletes considered highly specialized were more than twice as likely than the other categories to report a history of overuse knee and hip injuries. Participating in a single sport for more than 8 months during the year was an important factor in high injury risk of highly specialized athletes.
And there isn’t any certain sport that will keep you healthier than others, according to Post and the research group.
“Injuries are not necessarily better or worse for children participating in different sports, just different. Acute type injuries such as concussions, fractures, or sprains are more common in contact sports while overuse injuries like tendinitis, bursitis, or stress fractures are more common in non-contact sports like running or swimming. There can be very mild or very serious injuries in both of these categories.”
For this reason, it’s important to stress healthy training in whatever sport you or your child is playing.
This news doesn’t play well for a kid focusing all of their efforts on one sport in attempts of gaining playing time at the collegiate or professional level. Many prevalent voices from the athletic world (like Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks head coach) have spoken in favor of recruiting kids in multiple sports. They see it as higher competitive drive and adaptation of more muscle groups.
Post has seen this in his experiences as an athletic trainer, as well.
“From conversations that we’ve had with coaches, it does seem like in some sports, coaches are very concerned about the amount of wear and tear athletes they are recruiting have sustained as a result of year-round sport participation from an early age. Therefore, it does seem like some athletes may have an advantage in terms of being recruited because they either played multiple sports or didn’t sustain career-ending injuries due to specialization.”
The research group hopes not to discourage kids from playing sports, but to help them be as successful and healthy as possible.
“Playing sports as a child is a great way to encourage physically active behavior as an adult and to develop important social and life skills. The United States is in the midst of an inactivity and obesity epidemic, and physical activity has been shown to be an effective treatment for a variety of diseases. We don’t want to discourage anyone from participating in sports, rather we just want parents and coaches to have as much information as possible to make sport participation as safe as possible.” says Post.
The group also recognizes that while parents take a lot of blame for the trend in early specialization, they are also very concerned about the youth sports atmosphere and feel little power to change the system. They feel that if they don’t get their child into organized systems at an early age they will lose opportunities to play when they are older.
The next step for this particular lab group is to survey parents regarding attitudes towards specialization as well as to follow a cohort for an entire school year to further report on injury associated with specialization status.
It’s okay to take your sport seriously, but imperative to rest or cross-train in order to prevent overuse injuries before the call for the big league even happens.