About 60 million children and teens ages 6 to 18 participate in organized sports each year. Of those, about 27 percent are involved in only one sport, according to the National Council of Youth Sports. Increasingly, they’re training or competing year-round, often on multiple teams. Kids as young as 7 years old may join travel leagues in addition to school-sponsored programs.
Few would question the benefits of athletic activities for young people. Many kids’ lives revolve around their favorite sport as they build skill, form friendships and learn the value of teamwork and leadership.
Competition, the goal to improve, and the desire to stay on the team often lead to intensive year-round training in just one sport at a young age. Known as “early youth sport specialization,” the practice is becoming increasingly common among pre-teen and young teen athletes. The problem is that playing the same sport intensively all year round puts them at greater risk of an overuse injury.
Overuse begins gradually and happens over time, and it accounts for about half of the injuries seen in middle school and high school athletes. Excessive repetitive stress on muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments makes an injury more likely. Shoulder and elbow injuries are common in young athletes involved in baseball, tennis and overhead sports. Those playing field and impact sports often develop stress fractures and knee problems.
We advise parents that a better, healthier alternative to single sport specialization would be for young athletes to “cross train” by playing a variety of sports throughout the year.
The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine has published a consensus statement after reviewing the research on early sport specialization. A panel of experts, including a physician from Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), declared the practice to be detrimental. They advised against early specialization, defined as participation in an activity year-round at the exclusion of other sports prior to age 12.
The panel noted that there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early specialization in the majority of sports, and they are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity. The group proposed multisport participation as an excellent alternative to reach athletic goals and promote life-long enjoyment of physical activity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also published a recent report advising against single-sport specialization. The Academy encourages children to play multiple sports and delay specializing until late adolescence.
Initiatives at HSS, such as the Young Athlete Program, seek to raise awareness of good training practices and injury prevention. We want children and teens to be active all year; the key is diversification. If children play a variety of sports, they are less likely to experience an overuse injury.
Another benefit of diversification is that when an injury prevents a young athlete from playing one sport, he or she may still be able to participate in another athletic activity rather than having to sit out altogether. For example, a player who needs to give his shoulder a rest could still run on the track team.
Ultimately, more research is needed to determine the ideal age for sport specialization, the best way to prevent injuries in young athletes, and how to promote life-long enjoyment of athletics for good health.
Dr. Peter Fabricant is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in pediatric and adolescent orthopedic surgery. His clinical expertise is in sports medicine and trauma surgery of the knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, and ankle.