These days more and more young athletes are choosing to specialize in “their” sport as opposed to becoming the traditional 3-season athlete. We hear Cinderella stories of young athletes playing golf from the day they could stand and listen as said athlete attributes their success to their sticking to a solo sport. Coaches and parents have likely heard of the “10,000 hour rule,” a rule that implies skill mastery requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice, but is all this sport specific training necessary? More importantly, is it safe?
Added pressure from parents and coaches is compounded with college scouts evaluating athletes earlier. Some reports find pro and Olympic athletes being scouted into middle school. The mutual fear between the coach, athlete, and parent is that time not spent practicing is time lost. Indoor facilities expand the season for the athlete, allowing for indoor soccer and track, while others simply prepare for upcoming season in baseball. It’s not uncommon to find young athletes doubling up on practices and games either. You’ll find more baseball and soccer athletes playing school, travel, and club ball than ever before. Every sport offers its own opportunity to influence strength and flexibility, often creating muscle imbalance. Think of the star pitcher in school baseball. He or she often throws year round, ingraining strength into the throwing motion but often lacks the flexibility moving into the opposite direction. The same can be said for golfers. The key to avoiding these stresses includes a structured workout program that fights imbalance, but also movement variability. Movement variability occurs through playing multiple sports. It places varying forces through our spine and limbs in contrast to repetitive motion. Repetitive stresses cause breakdown and imbalance in the young athlete. Injuries can be deemed minor through through simple muscles strains or even more serious, including bone injuries (stress fractures and growth plate risks).
With any sport an athlete chooses there are inherent risks of repetitive stress injuries. Another simple example is to evaluate the season of a runner, as they often participate in cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, while training through the summer. In running, there is a lot of forward driven motion (sagittal plane) and not a lot of side to side (frontal plane) or turning/cutting (transverse plane) motion. Because of this, specific injuries are common. Specific muscles are stimulated through certain planes of movement. Without those planes we lose strength and flexibility. This philosophy can be applied to any other sport the young athlete may choose. As previously stated, playing multiple sports allows for varying stresses and adaptation through the body and decrease a young athletes risk for injury. Jaynthi, N et al (J Sports Med, 2014 Apr;48(7):611) found that picking one main sport was a risk factor for injury.
Other common sports that fall victim to specialization include hockey, lacrosse, gymnastics, figure skating, soccer, swimming, volleyball, and basketball. All of these sports and others will put strain on the young athlete and if not trained properly will cause breakdown. Hall R et al (J sports Rehabil. 2014 March 12) found a four fold greater risk of knee pain in a young female athlete who was sport specialized verse a multiple sport athlete. Again, the specialized athlete may be able to offset these numbers with corrective and maintenance exercise.
A young athlete can reach a high level of skill by specializing in a sport, but there are no free passes. Specialization comes at a cost. The body of a young athletes typically are not ready for the physical stresses of sports specialization. The body becomes more resilient, particularly after puberty and allows for better tolerance to specialization. Jayanthi, N et al (Sports Health. 2013 May;5(3) 251-7) recommends that intense training in 1 sport should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize the young athletes success and minimize injury, burnout, and psychological stress. By having young athletes compete and train in multi-sport seasons or free play activities this will decrease their risk of injury.