The Hazards of Sports Specialization


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By Kate Johnston

As youth athletics are becoming more professionalized, an increasing number of children are feeling pressure to specialize in one sport early in order to better compete at an elite or college level. For some kids, youth athletics have become a full-time job, as opposed to a fun and competitive activity. As a single sport athlete (soccer), I understand the drive for competition and success within one sport. However, many kids’ sole focus has shifted to scholarships and success, as opposed to enjoying the competitive and fun atmosphere of sports. This is not only creating excessive injury, but also emotional burnout, stress, and pressure. The whole idea behind playing sports is to have fun, but the intense culture of youth athletics is veering farther away from that idea, which is making more kids quit athletics all around.

Overuse injuries are a significant problem resulting from sports specialization. Playing only one sport more than eight months out of the year causes stress and repetition within certain muscles, making injuries such as ACL tears, rotator cuff tears, and stress fractures significantly more common. Dr. Nirav Pandya, Director of Sports Medicine at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, explains how, “using those same muscles and joints at a young age can lead to breakdown,” because playing the same sport year-round limits the muscle groups that are being used. Dr. Pandya estimates that 60 percent of his 1,500 patients come to him with injuries resulting directly from focusing on a single sport year-round. The amount of training that single sport athletes commit to emphasizes this effect of overuse injuries. With constant stress on certain areas, and minimal to no stress on other areas, year-round athletes are notably more likely to get injured. These injuries, whether acute or long term, can build up and significantly affect athletes into their adult lives.

Multisport athletes’ risk of injury is nearly 50 percent lower than that of single sport athletes, and their ability to become a more versatile athlete in enhanced. Playing multiple sports leads to better motor and muscle development, and it promotes all aspects of athleticism, including balance, speed, and agility. A Harvard University sports psychologist, Richard Ginsburg, states that “early specialization may enhance a skill but it does not enhance athleticism like practicing multiple sports can.” Although the majority of high school athletes do not go onto play college athletics, 88 percent of college athletes played more than one sport as children, and 70 percent didn’t specialize until they were older than 12.

Along with the physical repercussions that specialization creates, the emotional and mental consequences are just as significant. The pressure and stress that youth sports culture is putting on children is much more significant than it was just 15 years ago. Now, parents and coaches are more focused on getting their children or players into elite colleges on scholarships. While this competitive ambition is healthy, if it is the only goal it places an immense pressure on kids as young as 13. This pressure is not only unnecessary but also unhealthy for a child. It creates an environment in which kids feel like their sport is a job, ultimately leading to burnout. “Burnout is defined by Concordia University Ann Arbor Professor Timothy Neal as “a response to chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery,” and this a repetitive issue within high school and middle school athletes. Too much pressure, training, or commitment lead to athletes losing their love for the sport. The youth sports culture that is developing today is continuing to make burnout more common.

Caroline Curtis (‘19), an University of Alabama golf commit, says “I used to play other sports, but as golf got more serious I realized that I needed focus on it more if I wanted to play at an elite level. I wish it wasn’t that way because I loved playing other sports and being on a team.” Curtis also explained how golfers often have overuse injuries because of repetitive swinging, which works one side of the body much more than the other. Robbie Beran (‘19) who currently only plays basketball, but previously also played soccer and baseball, says that, “playing a variety of sports [in Lower and Middle school] allowed my body to rest, because different sports require different movements and muscles.”

One of Collegiate’s athletic trainers, Jason Engle, says, “I am seeing a lot of injuries that I wouldn’t usually see until JV (9th and 10th grade) sports, now at the Cub sports (7th and 8th grade) level. Especially with the kids that play year round baseball, where shoulders and elbows are starting to wear out at younger and younger ages.” Engle explains how younger kids are “skeletally immature, so they need to have a variation. If they keep stressing the same body parts over and over, they are going to break down. Once you start to become fully mature and your body can handle that stress, and you start specializing when you are in 10th or 11th grade, you body will be ready to handle it by then.”

Michael Brost (‘19), a three sport athlete in football, basketball, and lacrosse, believes that playing multiple sports has helped him improve in lacrosse. Brost states that, “the way you play defense in lacrosse and basketball relate. The way you hit in football is the same way you hit in lacrosse, and playing multiple sports helps you have a better athletic IQ.” Harper Zaun (‘18), a High Point University lacrosse commit who also plays basketball and lacrosse, stresses this by saying that, “A lot of sports connect. [Playing more than one sport] doesn’t help you with skills, but it strengthens your situational awareness. Playing basketball did not strengthen my stick skills, but it helped me know what to do if there is one minute left in the game and we are down. The more sports, you play the more of an athlete you are.”

Being a single sport athlete since ninth grade, I have an immense appreciation for the competition and level of play that specializing in soccer has brought me to. However, I continue to miss playing the other sports that I loved to play in Lower and Middle school. My experience with overuse injuries is recurring, and I believe that continuing to play other sports would have lessened my injuries and improved my athleticism. Although I can easily say that I would not improved nearly as much as I have if I had not decided to specialize in soccer, I continue to believe that playing multiple sports as long as possible helps athletes stay mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.

Featured photo credit: Lillian Johnston.

About the author

Kate is a junior at Collegiate.