HELENA — It’s becoming more and more common that young athletes specialize in one sport at a young age, usually in hopes of getting a college scholarship, or even going pro. Studies show that specialization can actually end up hurting the child more than helping them.
“They think if my kid does this all year round, they’ll be better at it. Actually, there was a study that came out of Denmark, they looked at their national track team. And then they looked at athletes that specialized before 14 and ones that specialized after 18. And there wasn’t a significant difference in their ability,” Dr. Noah Eshleman, a physical therapist at Helena’s PEAK Physical Therapy, said.
Specialization of a sport at a young age can actually put the child at a higher risk of what’s called an overuse injury.
The Cleveland Clinic found that overuse injuries account for more than 50% of medical visits by young athletes, and at PEAK Physical Therapy, it may be upwards of 75%.
Physical therapist Dr. Dani Williams compares these injuries to a paper clip.
“It’s like if I gave someone a paper clip and I told you to break it, you couldn’t break it right away. But if you do that over and over again, eventually it’s going to give so if you’re using a muscle group, so throwing, for example, and you have really poor mechanics, and you’re doing that over and over again, eventually something’s gonna give,” she said.
Eshleman and Williams’ biggest advice? Letting your kids be kids is the best way to avoid these injuries.
“If your kid only wants to play one sport, that’s fine. But the recommendation is in the offseason, go do something else. We live in Montana, you can hike, ski, fish, hunt, ice fish, you know, snowshoe, all kinds of other options,” Eshleman said.
The key is diversification, playing multiple sports is recommended, or just having them stay active outside of sports. Eshleman recommends weight training, which is OK for kids ages 10 and up, or just simply letting children have their friends over to play in the summer months.
The PEAK doctors recommend looking out for the telltale signs of overuse injury.
“There’s your more obvious signs, like everyone’s heard of like jumper’s knee, Osgood-Schlatter disease, like people can kind of get like an enlargement at the base of their knee. So a lot of times, especially in some of the sports. So like your runners, volleyball, basketball, there’s a lot of like repetitive jumping, you’re running on hard surfaces. So you kind of get like an overgrowth there just because a lot of things haven’t ossified or come to maturity. And so when you have overuse, you’re stressing that tenant, and you kind of get like a little bump,” Williams said.
“Just listening to your kids; increased fatigue, changes in appetite, mood, behavior, things like that all could be signs that they’re overusing something. lack of interest in sport, lack of interest in things outside of sports, because of sports. That kind of stuff can definitely be signs too,” Eshleman added.
The pair also urge parents to make sure their child is getting enough sleep and proper nutrition, two factors Eshleman says are “aggressively overlooked” and can help in the body’s healing process after training.
For more information, the National Athletic Training Association has their recommendations on early specialization here.