Several years ago I was sitting next to a recently retired NFL player watching our 11-year-old sons play baseball. After his son made a particularly athletic play in the field, I asked the father if his son played football. His response, “No way,” surprised me. He didn’t mean no way, never; he simply meant not now at this young age. His reasoning was only partly influenced by his desire to keep his son (relatively) injury-free. The boy wanted to play football, and his dad thought his son would one day be a stellar football player. But the dad felt that football — and the specific skills that needed to be learned — could wait. Being a well-rounded athlete who excelled in other sports — one, and no more, for each season — (baseball, basketball, soccer, even a little golf) and activities (biking, camping, hunting) would insure that this young man would be the best football player around. Eventually.
The concept of “sport diversification” is not new. A new study, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine shows that sport diversification can lead to fewer overuse injuries and burnout in young athletes. The study — from the American Medical Society For Sports Medicine — should be required reading for parents whose kids are serious about playing competitive sports, and the medical providers who care for them.
In the United States 60 million kids aged 6-18 years of age participate in organized athletics, with 44 million playing more than one sport. Injuries in this age group are common, with acute injuries and overuse injuries split evenly. Risk factors for overuse injury include:
- A history of a prior injury (a strong predictor of future overuse injuries).
- Rapid linear growth during the adolescent growth spurt, with stress on vulnerable growth plates, long bones, joints, tendons and ligaments.
- Menstrual irregularities and disturbances in female athletes.
- High training volumes — the amount of intense training being done.
- Poor-fitting equipment (which occurs as kids grow).
- Overscheduling, with multiple competitive games on the same day or multiple consecutive days.
Healio has the report’s recommendations:
Researchers recommended a history of prior injury —an established risk factor for overuse injuries— should be noted as part of each injury assessment and pre-participation examination. Adolescent female athletes should be assessed for menstrual irregularity as a predisposing factor to bone stress injuries. And because early sport specialization may increase risk for overuse injury and burnout, parents and physicians should encourage sport diversification among younger athletes, with the possible exception of early entry sports such as gymnastics, figure skating and swimming and diving.
Researchers also recommended limited weekly and yearly participation time and limited sport-specific repetitive movements; scheduled rest periods; and careful monitoring of training workload during the adolescent growth spurt, as injury risk seems to be greater during this phase. Finally, injury rates can be reduced with pre-season conditioning programs and pre-practice neuromuscular training.
Burnout — “part of a spectrum of conditions that includes overreaching and overtraining” and “defined to occur as a result of chronic stress that causes a young athlete to cease participation in a previously enjoyable activity” — was also addressed in this study. Less specialization and more sport diversification was one way found to prevent burnout.
Read more from this study here.
(Back pat: John Duffy, PT, OCS)