Is Youth Sports Specialization Harmful?

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 3:34 PM by McFarland Sports Medicine

When young athletes dedicate themselves to one sport to achieve collegiate or professional status, that's known as youth sports specialization. But does youth specialization have drawbacks? Sports Medicine physician Sarah Bancroft, DO talks about the reason youth sports specialization is getting a second look from sports medicine professionals.

Is Youth Sports Specialization Harmful?

“I think the pendulum where many parents and coaches used to think that (specialization) was the best thing to get (young athletes) into college or elite status, is starting to shift,” says Dr. Bancroft.

Ongoing research on youth sports specialization shows that athletes who reached collegiate or professional status didn’t start specializing in that sport until their late teens.

Some athletes are starting much younger and practicing all year in one particular sport. This combination is creating physical and mental health issues for some young athletes.

Physical Health Issues with Youth Sports Specialization

Sports Medicine professionals are beginning to see physical health issues with sports specialization.

“We know there is an increased risk, with many studies that are now being published, in bone, cartilage and ligament injury,” Dr. Bancroft says.

These injuries are tricky to treat on a sports medicine level, and can often cause long-term injuries in an athlete’s body. Overuse injuries are becoming more frequent among younger athletes, which was previously uncommon.

“For most younger athletes, the weakest link in their musculoskeletal system is their growth plates. That was typically the type of injuries we used to see,” Dr. Bancroft says. “Now we are seeing younger and younger athletes with large ligament and muscle injuries that are related to overuse."

Younger athletes getting injuries that are mainly seen in adults, who’s growth plates are fully closed, is concerning to sports medicine professionals.

Mental Health Issues with Youth Sports Specialization

The second issue is mental health. Dr. Bancroft says issues related to burn out, depression and anxiety have become noticeable.

“That is a totally new thing that we are seeing more frequently in college level athletics and elite athletics,” she says.

Preventing Injuries for Young Athletes

There is a theory about each body having a set amount of throws or "mileage" that it can perform in its lifetime. Sports medicine professionals have talked about how to spread that time out so that athletes do not reach their body's limit before the desired peak of their athletic career, which might include college or professional athletics.

“We don’t know the magic number for those things, but what we do know is that for some athletes, they are broken down by the time they get to the level they are hoping to," says Dr. Bancroft.

Now researchers are looking back at those athletes’ athletic careers to see what can be done to prevent injuries like those in other athletes.

What Parents & Coaches Can Do

Many sports are getting recommended amounts of time athletes should be spending on a particular sport. Baseball has pitch counts, for example, while basketball has recommended practice times or game schedules.

“It would be great to look at your particular sport in your youth athlete and see what that college or that particular sport is recommending," Dr. Bancroft said. "We can hopefully prevent athletes from peaking too early and not hitting the levels they are wanting to."

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