By Ken Reed

We have long written about the negatives associated with young athletes playing only one sport year round, namely a high risk for overuse injuries as well as psychological burnout.

Moreover, single sport athletes tend to quit playing competitive sports sooner than multi-sport athletes.

On the other hand, in addition to both fewer overuse injuries and cases of burnout, multi-sport athletes gain from exposure to different movement patterns, and benefit by enhanced all-around athletic ability and the development of more muscles, ligaments, etc., relative to single-sport athletes.

However, there doesn’t appear to be a slow down when it comes to youth athletes specializing in a single sport year-round. As such, Neeru Jayanthi, co-director of Emory Healthcare’s Youth Sports Medicine program believes we should try to work with these specializing youth athletes and their parents in an effort to lessen the negative effects of sport specialization.

“While sport specialization has its well-documented negatives, young athletes continue to pursue the pathway,” says Jayanthi. “I think it’s probably naive to just say, all right, we’ll take this adolescent, high-level, single-sport player and say, now go play another sport. I think you just must embrace and work with them.”

To that end, here are some tips from Jayanthi and other youth sports experts for young one-sport athletes:

1) Youth athletes should train fewer hours per week than their age. E.g., if an athlete is 12 years-old that would be a maximum of 12 hours per week of practicing in his/her sport.

2) Encourage free play, e.g., swimming in the summer and playing various games at recess. The ratio of organized training in sport versus recreational free play shouldn’t exceed two to one. The risk of overuse injury increases when that ratio is exceeded.

3) Kids shouldn’t play up a level or age group. They also shouldn’t play on several teams at the same time.

4) Be especially conservative during times of fast growth. During the adolescent growth spurt, typically ages 9 to 11 for girls and 11 or 12 in boys, young athletes are at greater risk for injuries at vulnerable spots, such as growth plates at the ends of bones and where tendons attach.

“Young athletes should train based on their stage of development, where the most intense competitive training is when they are past their peak height velocity or growth spurt,” Jayanthi says.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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