New research has found that high school athletes who specialize in one sport from an early age are at a much higher risk for injury than those who play more than one sport.
“High school athletes who say, ‘I’m going to focus on a single sport,’ even though they may play a couple sports, but really play one sport to the detriment of the others, they are 50-85 percent greater risk of injury on their lower extremities,” said Timothy A. McGuine, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin. He led a recent study of more than 1,500 high school athletes, which for the first time documented the association between sports specialization and lower-extremity injuries.
The researchers found no difference in injury rates between male and female athletes.
McGuine said he feels confident recommending that it’s bad for kids to only play one sport.
“I mean as one surgeon said to me, said hey we can’t talk about this too much because we’ve got to eat too,” he said. “We need kids playing year-round soccer, indoor soccer or we aren’t going to be able to fix as many knees.”
The other risk of too early specialization, is not just acute injury as a youth, but rather ending up with inactive, arthritic adults.
“Whenever kids get hurt, burned out, just kind of exhausted from that sport of choice, they tend to stop exercising, they adopt unhealthy behaviors, which leads to unhealthy adulthoods,” said Matthew Silvis, medical director of primary care sports medicine at Penn State Health.
“We really want to keep kids active in general,” he said. “And so not only a certain proportion of student athletes getting hurt repetitively, but we also worry about kids getting burned out and exhausted and tired and just giving up on sports or staying physically active in general from a younger age. And we know that the long-term fall-out of that in terms of their future health and the risk factors such as heart disease and heart disease is much higher.”
He said promoting later specialization will not only help prevent injuries, but may actually help in skill development.
“We really want our young children to stay as diverse as possible and there’s lots great examples of professional athletes who have modeled that behavior of staying diversified throughout their sporting careers,” he said. “We think that not only decreases their injury risk, but actually helps them in skill development.
Silvis said you can be a competitive athlete and be very successful at a high level, and balance that out with just healthy habits in general, such as taking time off from your sport each year, and making sure there’s time for free play.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.