The Risks of Sports Specialization

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February 10, 2020

The Risks of Sports Specialization

Youth athletic programs are a great way for kids to develop self-esteem and important social skills while trying out a variety of sports. But in the last ten years, many organized sports for young people have turned into highly competitive leagues that compete all year round. Of the sixty million kids who participate in some form of organized sports annually, many focus on only one. Doctors, rehab professionals, and well-informed coaches have long argued that sports specialization (when an athlete participates exclusively in one sport for greater than 8 months of the year) can increase the risk of injury and burnout.

“Participation in youth sports has many benefits, but the emphasis on competition can put immense strain on the human body, particularly one that’s still learning strength and coordination” said Emily Abramson-Chen, MD, a sports medicine physician with Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation Associates. “Not all kids have the physical or mental development to handle this, which can lead to overuse injuries and burnout.” The risk of overuse injuries can depend on the specific movements required by a given sport. Athletes who participate in more technical, repetitive, or impactful sports are at a greater risk compared with sports with a more varied movement profile.

One benefit of playing multiple sports over multiple seasons is that it varies the stress patterns placed on the body. Like rotating a car’s tires, changing the wear pattern increases the likelihood of staying healthy. It also allows an athlete to develop new skills and coordination-- playing multiple sports can actually make you better at your primary sport!

Many professional organizations have made recommendations to minimize injury and burnout. The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine ( recommends that for young athletes:

  • Participation in multiple sports should be encouraged at younger ages.
  • Delay specialization as long as possible.
  • Limit weekly and yearly participation time.
  • Limit sport-specific repetitive movements.
  • Schedule rest periods after every season.
  • Be particularly careful during the adolescent growth spurts.
  • Be prepared! Some athletes are at higher risk of overuse injuries than others, and a good pre-participation screening can help assess this.

If you or your young athlete is experiencing new or repeat injuries, weakness or pain, you may benefit from an evaluation by a sports medicine physician, orthopedist, or physical therapist. Call 800-818-4747 to find an orthopedic specialist near you.

Do you have an athlete in the family? Getting ready for the spring sport season? Join us for a free seminar, Common Sports Injuries - Prevention and Treatment, 6pm on Thursday, March 19, at the Spark! Transformation Center in Huntingdon Valley. Click here to register or call 800-818-4747.

Reference: DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner JS, et alOveruse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports MedicineBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2014;48:287-288.

Related Taxonomy
  - Pediatrics

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