Due to the availability of club and travel sports for our youth, there is an ongoing debate about when to select only one sport to focus on if at all.
When I was growing up, it was common to have the football quarterback throw footballs in the fall and switch to baseballs in the spring and summer.
Now I see lacrosse players who have only played year-round lacrosse since the 8th grade, or from the time they were in elementary school, someone has played recreation and travel league soccer, to cite a few examples.
I was doing a clinical rotation at Indiana State University while in their athletic training program when I saw a baseball player lying on a table in the training room. At first I thought he was leaning to one side, but at a second glance I saw that the right side of his upper body was so much more developed than his left that his body slanted 15 to 20 degrees to his left!
Such drastic over-training of half his body might have given him an advantage for the little remaining time he had in his lifetime to devote to his specialized sport, but at what cost?
The “Importance of Multi-Sport Participation” was written by Mark Rerick and published on the National Federation of State High School Associations website in 2016. He mentions several “detriments for kids who specialize.”
His list includes a greater risk of burnout, increasing overuse injuries, overscheduling and over-organization of sports (he claims free time allows for more creativity and better socialization among peers), and especially external pressure put on athletes to succeed.
Rerick then lists many benefits of multi-sport participation “for the 93 percent of high school athletes who will not advance to the college level,” as well as for “those seven percent of athletes moving on.”
He states in part, “In addition to the athlete’s sport-specific skill level, college coaches want to know how an athlete moves, how an athlete thinks, how good of a teammate the athlete is, how the athlete deals with adversity, and how the athlete competes.”
In October 2019, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) published an official statement in support of sport specialization recommendations for adolescent and young athletes.
The opening paragraph acknowledges, “Sport specialization as an evolving health issue in adolescent and young athletes,” and that, “Current evidence supports an association with sport specialization and overuse injury in athletes.”
The NATA supports the following six recommendations as they relate to the health and well-being of adolescent and young athletes.
1. Delay specializing in a single sport as long as possible: Sport specialization is often described as participating and/or training for a single sport year-round. Adolescent and young athletes should strive to participate, or sample, a variety of sports. This recommendation supports general physical fitness, athleticism and reduces injury risk in athletes.
2. One team at a time: Adolescent and young athletes should participate in one organized sport per season. Many adolescent and young athletes participate or train year-round in a single sport while competing in other organized sports simultaneously. Total volume of organized sport participation per season is an important risk factor for injury.
3. Less than eight months per year: Adolescent and young athletes should not play a single sport more than eight months per year.
4. No more hours/week than age in years: Adolescent and young athletes should not participate in organized sport and/or activity more hours per week than their age (i.e., a 12-year-old athlete should not participate in more than 12 hours per week of organized sport).
5. Two days of rest per week: Adolescent and young athletes should have a minimum of two days off per week from organized training and competition. Athletes should not participate in other organized team sports, competitions and/or training on rest and recovery days.
6. Rest and recovery time from organized sport participation: Adolescent and young athletes should spend time away from organized sport and/or activity at the end of each competitive season. This allows for both physical and mental recovery, promotes health and well-being and minimizes injury risk and burnout/dropout.
It has been my experience that two weeks are a minimum of rest after a season for athletes to recover from their accumulated pains and mentally regroup. Those who have shorter seasons take advantage of their time to cheer on their friends in other sports and really enjoy being a spectator during their break from being in the spotlight so often.
As always, the sports medicine professionals at Carolina Pines are excited to discuss this and many other topics further if requested. Please do not hesitate to ask.