Sports medicine experts warn against specializing too early

Almost one-third of injuries suffered in childhood are sports-related.

A study at Emory University has found that kids under 12 who specialize in one sport year-round are one and a half times more likely to report an injury.

In a recent ESPN investigative piece on kids specializing in basketball, sports medicine experts and even NBA general managers are concluding that “kids are broken by the time they reach college.”

Specializing in one sport around the La Crosse area was far less common a decade ago.

“Whenever there was a team sport at school, you’d be playing it. You were kind of looked as the weirdo if you just did one,” La Crosse Post 52 Legion coach CJ Favre said.

Specialization has now taken the country by storm. It’s seen as a pathway to get to the next level, but doing it from an early age causes problems.

“That athlete becomes significantly more susceptible to overuse-related injuries because their body is never really allowed the time to recover and heal from that repetitive stress,” said Andrew Jagim, Ph.D., Director of Sports Medicine Research at Mayo Clinic.

A 2016 University of Wisconsin study found that 36 percent of high school athletes classified as highly specialized, and they were two to three times more likely to suffer a hip or knee injury. Taking time off is crucial.

“You have to focus on the long game and understand that that rest sometimes can make you a healthier athlete, a better athlete,” Dr. Jagim said.

It’s something local athletes have taken to heart.

“I usually try to take at least one day off a week or at least sit out an afternoon, and just relax and make sure my body’s right,” Onalaska’s Conner Haggerty said.

Haggerty continues to play multiple sports for Onalaska, while Jared Everson of Aquinas is deciding to specialize in baseball as he enters his junior year. Both say that playing multiple sports in their early years was a good decision.

Said Everson, “It’s always a good thing to play multiple sports when you’re younger to gain that athleticism to eventually carry over into one sport.”

So is there a time to specialize that can lower the injury risk?

“Post-puberty would be a better time,” Dr. Jagim said. “There’s never a great time to really over-specialize, but that’s probably associated with a lesser risk.”

“After freshman year of high school, I’d say,” Haggerty said. “You use your freshman year to experiment, see what sport you really love.”

The Emory study says to hold off on specializing until age 12, so for kids below that marker, it’s up to the parents to help them avoid overuse injuries.

“Some parents are very competitive, and they like to push their kids and sign them up for different camps, different travel teams, tournaments,” Dr. Jagim said. “So they need to be the ones that are pumping the brakes a little bit.”

A study at the University of Wisconsin found that while most young athletes believe specialization increases their chances of making a college team, the majority of D1 athletes actually did not classify as highly-specialized.

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