Why specializing early can devastate young athletes

Posted at 4:30 AM, Aug 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-03 07:15:58-04

Encouraging your child to specialize early in a single sport might seem like a path to lower stress and greater success -- instead of spreading their energy and attention among multiple athletic pursuits, they refine their skills in just one. 

However, according to a study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, this can actually be a devastating decision for young athletes' health.

"Study after study after study have shown it is much better for you to play multiple sports at a young age to get that overall muscle balance than if you specialize in one sport," Dr. Emily Dixon, a sports medicine practitioner at TriHealth, said.

Student athletes who pour all their focus into a single sport and train vigorously in it, such as high school football player Mitchell Cox, face a 50 percent greater risk of serious injuries with long-term health consequences. 

"I just saw my football career flash before my eyes (when I hurt my knee)," Cox said. "After the first surgery, it never really healed. It was supposed to be pain-free, but that never happened."

Although he still participates in his school's team, Cox said it can be devastating to know he's no longer physically capable of playing at the level he once could.

"It definitely has been difficult," he said. "I see my teammates out there doing sprints and anything, and it just kills me that I can't do it."

Dixon recommended that parents of athletes under the age of 16 make sure their children are not overexerting themselves or training too much.

"Our bodies are not made to play a sport that long," she said. "The general rule of thumb I give parents is, the age your child is is how many hours of the week they should be practicing the sport. Specializing in sports, we don't recommend until after they're skeletally mature or have hit puberty."