Many parents who push their children to excel at one sport in the hope of receiving college scholarships don’t realize that they’re putting their children at risk for greater injuries. In a study of 1,200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.
DailyNorthShore asked Dr. Diego Villacis, an orthopaedic surgeon with the NorthShore Orthopedic Institute, to talk about the risks of sports specialization.
DNS: What is a common myth about specializing in one sport?
Dr. Villacis: There’s an increasing amount of sports specialization among youth athletes. We’ve found things that are not quite true in a sense that a lot of kids and their parents think that the more you specialize in a sport, the more likely you are to get a college scholarship and excel at that particular sport. Often times specialization doesn’t always correlate with being more successful.
DNS: What are the negative effects of specializing in one sport?
Dr. Villacis: The downside to specialization is that kids who play one sport are more likely to burn out and not want to play in college.
That’s the general synopsis of what this is about. The kids who specialize are more susceptible to injury and an emotional burden from coaches and parents. Kids should be out there having fun and it shouldn’t be about securing a college scholarship by playing one sport.
DNS: At what age are parents pushing their children to specialize in one sport?
Dr. Villacis: We’ve seen a lot of kids starting as young as middle school, and the concern is that kids won’t play other sports throughout high school. We’re not saying that you should never specialize in sports, but if the belief is that it gives you a better chance of playing in college, that’s not really the case.
Many kids as early as middle school and high school are coming into my clinic with injuries that are basically overuse injuries. I see them as young as 14 or 15 whether it be baseball, soccer or basketball. It used to be you had seasonal sports so you had some breaks in between. For example, if you were playing one sport that’s overhand like pitching then you would go into basketball, which doesn’t have the same wear and tear. But if you’re playing baseball all year round, you’re more susceptible to overuse injuries.
The biggest trend is that kids who play year-round are more likely to sustain an ACL tear than kids who play multiple sports. Some parents think they don’t want to get their kids out of shape and they should be playing all year-round, but it’s been shown to lead to more injuries.
DNS: Do some sports have more wear and tear than others?
Dr. Villacis: Pitching is one of the biggest ones. In recent years, we’ve been doing things like pitch count to try to help prevent that. The coaches want to play some of these kids who pitch well all of the time, especially the ones that hit puberty earlier and are big and strong. However, in the long run it’s not the best thing, because you could basically wear out your arm.
As far as head injuries, football is still number one with high-risk concussions. Kids aren’t playing football when they’re six, seven or eight-years-old, and it’s better to wait to play football when they’re more developed.
DNS: Do organized sports play a larger role in these injuries than neighborhood games?
Dr. Villacis: The club and travel teams for sports have changed so much since my generation. The downside is a lot of teams make kids choose. They have to be committed and they can’t play other sports. I used to play club soccer one part of the year, and high school soccer another part of the year. Now club travel teams only let you play on their teams, and won’t let you play for the high school.
DNS: What is your best advice for minimizing the risk of youth sports injuries?
Dr. Villacis: Be aware if you’re having pain to get evaluated for it. Pediatric sports medicine has really developed over the past 10 or 15 years, and many parents don’t realize that pediatric sports medicine exists.