One thing that I noticed during the summer Olympics was the amount of dedication and time that most of these athletes have put into their sport. Some of them have been working exclusively on their sport since they were 5 or 6 years old. There are the extreme examples such as the Chinese gymnast who had only spent 16 days at his home since he was 6 years old – the rest of his life has been spent in training. All of these things made me think more about the trends that I have seen in my practice of athletes who specialize in a sport at younger and younger ages.
When I was a kid, there were defined sports seasons for young athletes. Baseball was in the spring, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. I grew up in an area without any organized soccer, but I’m sure some of you remember that being in the rotation as well. Those who seemed to be the best athletes usually just played all the sports. When baseball season was over, the baseball glove eventually found its way into the closet until the next season.
Now I routinely experience an exchange similar to this in my office.
Patient: “I have elbow pain when I pitch, especially in the later innings.”
Me: “Has it bothered you all season?”
Patient: “Yeah, but it’s getting worse.”
Me: “When is your season over?”
Patient’s Father: “Little League playoffs ended last week. All-Star practice starts this week and goes for 2 months. Then we go straight into fall ball.”
After further probing, sometimes I discover that the kid may be pitching 11 months out of the year. It’s not isolated to baseball either. I see girls who are playing softball or volleyball all year long. Cheer and gymnastics are now year-round for many girls as well. Soccer season seems to never end for both boys and girls. Most sports now have the option to play virtually non-stop if the athlete chooses.
I definitely understand the push for sports specialization, because once parents see that their child is good at a sport, they see the potential for college scholarships and more. They are afraid that their child will get left behind their peers if they aren’t honing their skills all year long. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are definitely some negative factors that should be considered.
From an orthopaedic standpoint there is an increased risk of injury, especially an overuse injury, with year-round same-sport play. The same muscles and joints are stressed constantly with no down time for them to recover. This is particularly risky in kids where the musculoskeletal system is still growing. It has been shown that throwing sports, especially baseball pitching, can lead to anatomic changes in the shoulder that persists into adulthood. If you played baseball as a child, try this test:
- With your arm starting at your side, reach behind your back with your throwing arm and see how high you can get up your back.
- Now do the same with your non-throwing arm and compare.
- How much higher could you get with your non-throwing arm?
Is this a big problem? No, not really for most people. But it illustrates the effects that sports can have on the developing skeleton.
Not only is injury risk a concern, but there is also a chance of sports burnout. If the push for playing the same sport continuously is coming more from the parents than the child, then burnout is a real risk. I have seen many young athletes in the office with complaints of a nagging injury that doesn’t really fit their exam. They may be using this as an excuse to get some time off. If I suspect this I will usually broach the subject with them and the parents in the office.
My recommendation for most young athletes is to play as many sports as you can while you are young. Once you are more skeletally mature (usually around high school) then decide what sports you like the best and start to specialize in those. Otherwise, we may get to know each other very well.