Young athletes who specialize in one sport and train intensively for that sport have a significantly higher risk of stress fractures and other severe overuse injuries, even when compared with other injured athletes, according to the largest clinical study of its kind. 
At the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) meeting in San Diego, sports medicine physicians from Loyola University Medical Center presented the study titled “Risks of Specialized Training and Growth in Young Athletes.”
Among the study’s findings:
· Young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport – such as a 12-year-old who plays tennis 13 or more hours a week – were 70 percent more likely to experience serious overuse injuries than other injuries.
· Young athletes were more likely to be injured if they spent more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they spent in unorganized free play — for example, playing 11 hours of organized soccer each week, and only 5 hours of free play such as pick-up games with friends.
· Athletes who suffered serious injuries spent an average of 21 hours per week in total physical activity (organized sports, gym and unorganized free play), including 13 hours in organized sports. By comparison, athletes who were not injured participated in less activity – 17.6 hours per week in total physical activity, including only 9.4 hours in organized sports.
· Injured athletes scored 3.3 on researchers’ six-point sports-specialization scale. Uninjured athletes scored 2.7 on the specialization scale. (On the sports specialization scale, an athlete is given one point for each of the following: Trains more than 75 percent of the time in one sport; trains to improve skill or misses time with friends; has quit other sports to focus on one sport; considers one sport more important than other sports; regularly travels out of state; trains more than eight months a year or competes more than six months per year.
One of the more unique findings in the study was that young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport – such as a 12-year-old who plays tennis 13 or more hours a week – were 70 percent more likely to experience serious overuse injuries than other injuries.
As a result the sport medicine physicians who published the study recommend that young athletes should not spend more hours per week than their age playing sports.
Another author of the study said kids are more susceptible to stress injuries in the back if they are training too hard and long before their bodies have fully developed.
“The chance of a full recovery can be as low as 25 to 50 percent,” he said. That can then lead to slipped discs and other back problems when they become adults.
I understand the mindset that if a child focuses on one sport that they’ll become more proficient at it while logging the necessary hours to master the desired skills. However this directly contradicts how a young child develops. They thrive and need variety to develop optimally. By investing all their eggs in one basket you will leave them vulnerable to volatility. And your child will experience plenty of ups and downs on their way to sport proficiency, better to have a broad athletic foundation that they can access to navigate the chaos.
It is important to understand that all sport specific skills are merely coordinated elements of basic athleticism and movement proficiency. If a child never is allowed to develop the fundamentals of movement they will not have the tools necessary to build more advanced skills. Resist the urge to push kids to soon even if it seems like it’s what they want to do. Do you let them have cookies and soda whenever they want it? As leaders of young people we need to step in and apply the brakes when necessary.
Diversity is the key to developing robust athletes (in my mind all children are athletic or have the potential to be even if they don’t play sports). Back in the day the best athletes played multiple sports. And each season allowed the development of new skills that added to the overall athleticism of the child. Mastery of a sport skill is much more difficult if not impossible without tremendous overall athleticism. It may feel risky to not have your child specialize while all of the other kids are doing it. But the biggest risk of all (as the highlighted study clearly demonstrates) it turns out is navigating youth athletic development on the razor thin high wire routine that is early specialization.
By the Numbers
Between 2010 and 2013, physicians enrolled 1,206 athletes ages 8 to 18 between who had come in for sports physicals or treatment for injuries.
There were 859 total injuries, including 564 overuse injuries, in cases in which the clinical diagnosis was recorded. The overuse injuries included 139 serious injuries such as stress fractures in the back or limbs, elbow ligament injuries and osteochondral injuries (injuries to cartilage and underlying bone). Such serious injuries can force young athletes to the sidelines for one to six months or longer.
The study confirmed preliminary findings, reported earlier, that specializing in a single sport increases the risk of overall injury, even when controlling for an athlete’s age and hours per week of sports activity.
Do many high school athletes earn athletics scholarships?
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA):
Very few in fact. According to recent statistics, about 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college. This small number means high school student-athletes and their parents need to have realistic expectations about receiving an athletic scholarship to play sports in college. Academic, not athletic, achievement is the most reliable path to success in life.
Check out this insightful article from a long time Detroit Free Press amateur sports writer, with his take on the early sport specialization culture: