Weighing the inherent risks of sport specialization

COMMENTARY – One of the responsibilities that parents take most seriously is protecting their children from injury, whether it is buckling seat belts in a car or wearing a helmet while riding a bike. And when their kids become teenagers and want to participate in sports or other activities, parents do everything they can to keep their sons and daughters from getting hurt.

But not all injuries are caused by a twist, fall, collision or accident. Many are caused when young athletes repeat the same athletic activity so often that muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones don’t have time to recover – especially among middle school and high school students.

These injuries can end promising careers, cost families tens of thousands of dollars, squash dreams and literally change lives. Examples include elbow and arm injuries to teenagers who play baseball or softball all year long, shoulder injuries to year-round swimmers, wrist and elbow injuries to gymnasts, and stress fractures to soccer players.

The culprit, most often, is what’s commonly known as “sport specialization,” the process of playing the same sport all-year long with the goal of either gaining a competitive edge or earning a college scholarship. It involves intense, year-round training in a single sport.

Research shows that sports specialization is putting teenage athletes at risk. According to a study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, high school athletes who specialize in a single sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during their playing season than those who play multiple sports.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says much the same. It reports that “overuse injuries” (injuries caused when an athletic activity is repeated so often that parts of the body do not have enough time to heal) are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle school and high school students.

There is a solution.

Young athletes should be encouraged to play multiple sports. When student-athletes cross-train, they work different muscle groups and joints which, in fact, results in better overall conditioning. They also develop a new set of athletic skills like hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, explosion and agility that are transferable to their primary sport.

It’s no coincidence that 30 of the 32 first-round picks in the 2017 National Football League draft played multiple sports in high school.

Parents can play a key role in preventing these overuse injuries by encouraging their kids to play multiple sports rather than pushing them to specialize in one sport. They will have more fun, will be less likely to suffer burnout and will actually become better athletes.

This opinion piece was written by Bob Gardner, Executive Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations and Rob Cuff, Executive Director of the Utah High School Activities Association. The opinions ecpressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • uprightandmovingforward May 2, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    Years ago, every sport had an off season. Nowadays with club play, every sport is playing year round. Tournament promoters are making the bucks off of all these athletes, all of whom are thinking they will go pro someday or get college scholarships. Truth is: if parents would save all the money spent on tournaments and travel, they would have more college money saved for their kids then the scholarships would provide. Being a scholarship athlete is really just like having a job. With all the practice time and travel time, student athletes barely make minimum wage for their time. In most instances, they would be better off getting a paying job and going to school.

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