Youth Sports: How much is too much?

Specialization in a single sport is causing health issues for young athletes and potential detriment to their future in athletics.

Football Soccer Match for Children. Boys Running and Kicking Football Soccer Ball. Kids Playing Soccer Game Tournament
© matimix, Adobe Stock

Playing a sport as a youth has become standard practice, and for good reason: the camaraderie of a team, the exercise and the fun. But with the trend of kids specializing in one sport, there are major health issues involved that will only become a detriment to their futures as athletes if not handled correctly.

Coach Sarah Walls, owner of SAPT Strength and Performance Training Inc. and the strength and conditioning coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, says she has seen an increase in injuries to athletes as young as 11 that are typically only seen in adults: elbow injuries that are causing them to have Tommy John surgeries, repeated ACL tears, shin splints, knee ligament injuries and more. The reason: overuse.

Specialization in one sport year-round for any athlete younger than 15 is not a good idea, according to Walls. At any age younger than 15, the child’s motor patterns have not set or matured. At 15, “they’ve already gone through puberty, so it is appropriate to handle that repetitive nature of whatever the sport is,” she explains. “Prior to that, motor patterns are still forming, and they need to have the variety for their muscles to stay balanced and healthy.”

But the problem Walls is seeing in her clients isn’t just in the injuries; it is when the child isn’t given enough time to heal properly from injuries already sustained. She sees many parents in her practice who bring their children in for performance improvement or to work on strengthening an area that has been injured, and Walls says they will not pull the child out of the sport that is causing them pain, “not even for a month,” due to either pressure from coaches or fear of the child falling behind in skills. “It is to that child’s developmental detriment because they are either going to get hurt really badly and have to have a surgery, they will get completely burnt out on the sport, or they are missing out on doing other activities that are going to develop them as athletes that will be beneficial for whatever sport [it] turns out they are maybe really good at,” Walls says.

In reality the chances of any youth athlete taking a spot on a professional roster is slim, same with collegiate-level teams. In fact, a recent study out of Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School states that two studies show “the proportions of athletes who focused on a single sport in early ages and advanced to elite level in their later careers are less than 1 percent.” However, the studies found participation in multiple sports helped athletes perform better in their later years.

It is the strength a child has that will benefit them the most in their athletic careers, says Walls. “The biggest difference between the average athlete and someone who is really exceptional, kind of at any age, is going to be their basic strength levels,” she says. “Professional athletes are unbelievably strong—part of that is natural, part of that [has] been developed as they [have] gone through college and matured themselves—and that is what tends to be the major deficit in the children that I am working with and definitely the kids who are getting injured.”

Walls agrees with the advantages playing multiple sports has for young athletes and offers anecdotal evidence by describing a conversation she heard while at Mystics training camp: “At the beginning of the season, these professional athletes started joking about this whole concept of these kids that only play one sport—every single one of them talked about all the sports they played—and how wrong that concept is. It was so interesting and funny, their commentary on this insane idea of why on earth would you make your kid play basketball nine or 12 months out of the year.”

Walls wants parents of young athletes to keep the true end game in mind when it comes to sports, and if that is a sport that will lead to a potential college scholarship, it is “even more reason to keep your kid’s health top-of-mind. You always have to bring it back down to the foundation of this is your kid.

“At the end of the day, you can’t remake your genetics,” says Walls. “The kids that are born with it, it is that it thing, and you can’t manufacture it. You can get pretty far with working on your technique, but you can’t take it all the way, not even to college.”

(November 2017)