Can playing just one sport, cause injury, ruin a child’s recruitment chances?

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WILMINGTON — The idea of a child specializing in one sport, rather than playing multiple-sports during the formative youth years, is a growing trend. It’s also a practice that’s raising eyebrows among those who work with older athletes.

A pair of professionals in the Cape Fear area, along with a recent study funded by National Federation of High School Associations, is highlighting the potential drawbacks for individuals who focus on a single sport.

According to a study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, more than 1,500 high school student-athletes equally divided between male and female participants were represented.

Photo courtesy- John Crouch
Photo courtesy of John Crouch

The report indicated that high school athletes who specialize in a single sport sustain lower-extremity injuries at significantly higher rates than athletes who do not specialize in one sport. Those findings are not unknown locally, either.

“I see both upper and lower extremity overuse injuries more in my athletes who only participate in a single sport,” said Pamela Dixon, Laney High School Athletics Trainer. “The basics behind each of the overuse injuries is when an individual is training only one sport, there are going to be some muscle groups that are used more-so than others.

“When muscle imbalances present, the body then has both muscles that are overused and tight as well as muscles that are elongated and weak. This creates a need for differential functional stretching and strengthening,” Dixon said.

The report indicated that high school athletes who specialize in a single sport sustain lower-extremity injuries at significantly higher rates than athletes who do not specialize in one sport.

Athletes who specialized in one sport were twice as likely to report previously sustaining a lower-extremity injury while participating in sports (46 percent) than athletes who did not specialize in one sport (24 percent), according to the University of Wisconsin report.

In addition, specialized, or single-sport, athletes sustained 60 percent more new injuries to their lower-extremities during the study than athletes who did not specialize. Lower-extremity injuries were defined as any acute, gradual, recurrent or repetitive-use injury to the lower musculoskeletal system.

“For the vast majority of athletes, the drawbacks of early specialization are numerous,” said Hudson Rose, who owns Hudson Rose Athletic Development Fitness and Training on Market Street in Wilmington. “The majority of research suggests that early specialization can have significant negative consequences for the development of an athlete over time.”

Thirty-four percent of the student-athletes involved in the Wisconsin study specialized in one sport, with females (41 percent) more likely to specialize than males (28 percent). Soccer had the highest level of specialization for both males (45 percent) and females (49 percent).

Click here for the complete study on sports specialization and how it can affect young athletes.

According to Rose, who trains athletes that vary in age from the local high schools to veteran NFL kicker Connor Barth, there are at least seven reasons why sports specialization at a young age may not be the way to go.

“Early specialization could have several different effects,” Rose said, “including:

  • can interfere with healthy child development by increasing social isolation;
  • can hurt, rather than help, skill development, by limiting the range of motor skills developed;
  • can lead to overuse injuries;
  • promotes adult values and interests, not those of children;
  • can shorten athletic careers;
  • increases chances the child will suffer burnout and quit sports; which is the one I see most.
  • reduces the chance that children will stay active in sports as adults due to overuse and mental fatigue”

Injuries, burnout and mental fatigue as a result of specialization may not be the only thing hampering a young athletes in their development on the field. Rose has also started to see a trend where coaches at the college level are putting much of their focus on recruiting athletes who play multiple sports. For example, the Ohio State University Football program has 42 of 47 scholarship athletes who were two sport athletes in high school. 

“Basketball helps a football player’s feet, and track helps his explosiveness,” Rose said. “High school is such a precious time for these guys and girls. They need to play what they want to play. There’s plenty of time to lift weights and go to camps. But, they really need to be able to enjoy those few years they’ve got in front of them as a high school student.

Photo courtesy- Cape Fear Academy.
Photo courtesy of Cape Fear Academy.

“Without a doubt, being versatile and playing as many sports as you can is a plus not just for physical reasons, but social and emotional as well,” Rose added.

Rose, the longtime professional trainer- — like many others in the area –understands the need for specialized training to help build on all aspects of the young athlete from movement quality and functionality, to gaining strength and power.

But, the professionals are starting to agree with the data that suggests keeping children in a well-rounded athletic environment is more likely to help him or her truly reach their potential in sports.