The issue of single-sport specialization — and the associated risks — is back in the headlines this week, and as someone who wrote about this trend more than a decade ago and has since become a youth sports coach, it is a topic of great interest to me.
The bottom line: Don’t do it.
If your child is the next Alex Morgan, Serena Williams, LeBron James, or Ronald Acuña Jr., maybe it’s worth the risk, but let’s be realistic: He or she probably isn’t destined to reach the highest levels and make millions of dollars.
For the vast majority of young athletes, specializing in one sport simply doesn’t make sense, yet more and more kids are doing it every year. I was ahead of the curve when I wrote about the trend in an award-winning, 10-part series for The Island Packet in 2008, but even then, experts were alarmed by the number of athletes who were exclusively playing one sport at an early age. Leading orthopedic surgeons, including the legendary Dr. James Andrews, cautioned against single-sport specialization, as did researchers, college coaches, and others.
Their concerns have not changed over the past decade — they have intensified. Yet the trend continues.
A report last week on ESPN.com took a look at the increased injury risk associated with single-sport specialization, leaning on a series of studies in 2017 and 2018 in which University of Wisconsin professor David Bell and his team concluded that “while most youth athletes today believe specialization increases their performance and chances of making a college team, the majority of those who reached Division I level didn't classify as highly specialized at the high school level.”
Athletes were considered “highly specialized” if they met three criteria — they were able to identify their primary sport, they played or trained for that sport more than eight months of the year, and they had quit at least one other sport to focus on their primary sport.
In a separate 2016 study, Bell and his team concluded that 36 percent of high school athletes classified as highly specialized — and those athletes were two to three times more likely to suffer hip or knee injuries, according to the ESPN report.
Overuse injuries have long been a concern for young baseball players, who are increasingly needing Tommy John surgery to repair damaged or torn ulnar collateral ligaments in their pitching elbows, often as a result of throwing too many pitches because of year-round play.
But it’s not just happening to baseball players — basketball players, tennis players, and others are seeing their bodies break down before they even get to college, and overuse due to specialization is believed to be the culprit in most cases. Another group of researchers featured in the ESPN piece found that highly specialized athletes who played one sport year-round were more than twice as likely to suffer bone, cartilage, and ligament injuries than those who played multiple sports or took extended time off between seasons.
It’s a serious enough concern that the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine published a position statement in 2013 cautioning against the increasing pressure to begin high-intensity training at young ages. “Such an excessive focus on early intensive training and competition at young ages rather than skill development can lead to overuse injury and burnout,” the paper’s executive summary stated.
The temptation is great, especially as young athletes begin to identify their favorite sport — which often is their strongest — but so is the risk. We can’t expect kids to pull the reins themselves, so it’s our responsibility as adults to make sure they don’t overdo it.
Justin Jarrett is the CEO of LowcoSports.com, president of Bluffton Youth Sports, co-founder of Lowcountry Wrestling Club, and a dedicated youth sports coach.