Story by Lawrence Gunnells
I love everything about amateur sports, from the competition, to the lessons in teamwork, to the personal growth I see in kids. But there is a trend in youth sports that carries with it risks that threaten the very participants for whom the sports have been created and organized.
“Specialization,” or focusing on one sport all year long, can create problems that kids—and more specifically parents and coaches—need to be aware of. For all the benefits that specialization would appear to present, the risks far outweigh the perceived benefits.
The risk of serious injury
One of the rationalizations I hear for focusing on one sport is that playing another sport (other than the one the kid, parent or coach thinks is their “best” sport) is that they could be injured seriously. The fear, of course, is that an injury might prevent them from playing the sport that is their “ticket” to the next level. (More on that golden “ticket” later).
According to several credible sources, there is a greater risk of serious injuries from “overuse” of muscle, tendon and joint groups when you specialize. Pick your sport (most commonly baseball, basketball, and soccer) and the risks are there for all of them.
Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine says that 46% of kids who specialize in a sport suffer serious injuries that require reconstructive surgeries, as compared to 24% of kids who play multiple sports.
Dr. James Andrews, a renowned sports surgeon, is a loud proponent of kids playing multiple sports. Andrews, who has gained notoriety for “repairing” athletes like Bo Jackson and Drew Brees, saw an alarming trend in youth sports injuries, starting in 2000, particularly in baseball.
In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Andrews stated that “almost half of sports injuries in adolescents stem from overuse.”
“The deal is, as sports physicians, we've all been amiss for years worrying about putting people back together and fixing things and new techniques. But we've largely ignored the real problem: prevention of injuries. Everybody now agrees that the time is right to keep these kids from getting hurt so often.” - Dr. James Andrews
Dr. Michael Cain with the Clarksville office of Tennessee Orthopaedic Alliance said the risk of overuse is much higher in younger athletes.
“Adolescent and pre-adolescent athletes are at risk for overuse injuries as their bones are still developing,” Cain said.” In particular, baseball players are at risk for shoulder and elbow injuries. Tendons are susceptible to overuse injuries in anyone, but young athletes in particular as they need rest to continue to grow and recover. I would recommend to parents if they are considering specializing their child in one sport to include 3-4 months during the year of rest or general conditioning as the young athlete is not designed for constant year-round play in the same activity.”
Top athletes play multiple sports
If you think specialization gives you a greater chance of making it to the next level, you may want to look at the facts.
Mayo Clinic surveyed NCAA Division I athletes and found that 88% played multiple sports as kids. Not coincidental is the fact that several successful college sports coaches, including Nick Saban of Alabama and Urban Meyer (formerly) of Ohio State, have said that they look for athletes who played multiple sports in high school because that versatility speaks volumes about their overall athleticism.
In the 2017 NFL Draft, 30 of the 32 first round draft picks (including all seven of Ohio State’s first round picks) said that they played multiple sports in high school.
Even in Clarksville, there is plenty of evidence that this is true.
One of the most impressive high school athletes last school year was Devyn Bender from Clarksville High. Bender played three sports, and he didn’t just make the starting lineup; he was named All-Region in football, and All-District in basketball and baseball.
As a sophomore Bender made a “temporary” decision to focus most of his time on basketball, and during that time he suffered two knee injuries and an elbow injury. During his senior year, when he played three sports, he suffered one injury—a jammed finger in football (he was a receiver). After playing all those sports, he decided to play football in college, and is currently preparing for his first fall season at Austin Peay State University.
This is as important to me now as an “older” adult as any of the other reasons not to specialize.
I talk to kids all of the time—particularly those in smaller schools and communities—about the memories they are making as high school athletes. Their participation is important to the community at large. A kid with great capacity for athletic achievement can be the difference between his school’s team being competitive and having a losing record.
In that same Mayo Clinic study, 43% of NCAA players said they wished they had spent more time in other sports growing up.
In addition to Bender, there are many other stories of kids making the decision to play other sports even when it might appear to be a risk. In Pleasant View, Daniel Saylor is entering his senior year at Sycamore High School. Saylor is 6’10”—so yes, he is a basketball star. His “next level” sport is certain to be basketball, but his “favorite” sport growing up was soccer, so Saylor is on the Sycamore soccer team.
His father, Dan Saylor, is a physical therapist with Star Physical Therapy, so he knows a little about sports injuries.
“We (he and wife, Ann) have always encouraged Daniel to play multiple sports, and have not discouraged him from playing soccer,” Saylor said. “He has had some minor injuries, which were easily treatable, but the benefits of developing other skills besides those specific to basketball have made a tremendous difference is his overall development.”
Kids need to be allowed to be kids, and specialization turns the sport into more of a job—something they are not prepared to handle at a young age.
Studies show that high specialization at a young age promotes higher stress and anxiety, social isolation, and burnout, which can ultimately lead to a kid leaving the sport before they reach their full potential.
So, what should kids and parents focus on to avoid these pitfalls?
Don’t specialize before age 14. This will give the young athlete a better chance at being able to handle the physical demands of specialization and will lower the chance of burnout.
Get enough sleep every night. Rest and recovery are crucial to avoiding injury. Kids 7-11 should get 10-12 hours a night, and 12 and older need about 8-9 hours a night.
Take time off. Take significant breaks between seasons in the same sport, and limit the number of games and practices based on the athlete’s age. Kids 7-9 years old should not have more than one practice and one game a week.
Talk to an expert. Parents often have challenging expectations for their kids based on what they perceive others are doing. Talking to a youth sports expert can offer perspective.
About the author—Lawrence Gunnells is the president of Boom Sports Media TN, Inc., a Clarksville-based company focused on covering high school sports in Montgomery, Cheatham and Stewart Counties. You can find out more about the company on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or by visiting their website at www.boomsportstn.com.