Are you hoping your son will be the next LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw? Does your daughter aspire to lead the WNBA in scoring or play goalie for the U.S. women’s soccer team? While many kids dream of becoming a professional or Olympic athlete, there may be physical and emotional drawbacks to children in elementary and middle school training like one.
Specializing — playing one sport year-round without enough time off to rest and recuperate — at a young age increases a child’s risk of injury (including serious problems like bone deformities) and can lead to burnout.
Before you allow, or encourage, your child to become a single-sport athlete, read what Charles Bush-Joseph, MD, a sports medicine surgeon at Rush and team physician for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox, has to say about specialization:
Bush-Joseph: In the late 1990s. That’s when there started to be a shift from participation leagues — the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), for instance — to club level sports.
The goal of community-based organizations like AYSO is to teach kids soccer in a friendly, comfortable, noncompetitive environment.
Clubs are set up by private individuals with different goals. One of those goals is trying to find and cultivate elite athletes. Because when you develop an elite athlete, that’s a greater magnet or marketing tool for the club.
When these youth club sports started to take off, it really changed the formula from participation and engagement to participation and performance/skills development.
Bush-Joseph: A lot of kids who used to play three sports decided to focus instead on a single sport. They would say, “I’m going to be a really good soccer player, and to do that, I need to play all the time.”
This had always been the case with gymnastics and ice skating. For those sports, you always had to be a year-round athlete. So we already had a high incidence of both overuse injuries — from doing the same activity or motion over and over — and traumatic injuries in those kids.
But now, the same is true for soccer, baseball, softball and basketball. There’s a lot more pressure on the kids, physically and mentally, because the sport is a 12-month pursuit instead of three or six months.
Bush-Joseph: In baseball players, there’s an epidemic of what we call “Little Leaguer’s elbow.” Repetitive throwing causes a very strong pull on the tendons and ligaments in the elbow. The child may experience pain, restricted range of motion and locking of the elbow. Over time, this pulling can lead to serious injury or even bone deformity.
“Little Leaguer’s shoulder” is often seen not only in baseball players, but also tennis players and gymnasts whose growth plates are still open. Growth plates — growing tissue on both ends of the long bones in children and adolescents — determine how long and what shape the bones will ultimately be. When the growth plates close, usually around age 18, they are replaced by solid bone.
Repeated overhead motion can damage the growth plates, causing pain and other symptoms. In the most extreme cases, bone growth can actually be stunted if the injury isn’t quickly and properly addressed.
Bush-Joseph: There are. In young girls who play soccer, for instance, we see a lot of hip problems related to trying to kick the ball too long, hard or often. Muscle weakness or imbalance can also make young female athletes vulnerable to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
ACL tears are actually a big problem in female soccer and basketball players, in particular. These are sports where you do a lot of jumping, sudden stopping and starting, making quick directional changes — motions that put a lot of stress on the knee. We don’t, however, know why girls seem to tear these ligaments more often than boys in those sports.
Bush-Joseph: You don’t want kids to not play sports when they’re younger, especially ones they enjoy. But at minimum, children should never play a year-round sport until they are 14 or 15; they should have at least a three-month block where they participate in something other than their specialized sport, such as keeping themselves active with some gym equipment.
By high school, specialization is accepted. In fact, you don’t see nearly as many two- or three-sport athletes these days. Focusing on a single sport before age 14, however, raises the risk not only of injuries, but of mental and emotional burnout.
Another thing to keep in mind: Specialization narrows a child’s focus. Sometimes kids will hit their peak in a sport at 12 or 13 and can’t move up to the next level, or they simply don’t enjoy it anymore and want to quit.
If that’s the only sport they’ve learned, they’re then stuck with no other sport to fall back. They’ll never know whether they had greater ability in — or would get more enjoyment from — another sport or sports.
Bush-Joseph: It is a huge problem — possibly more so than injuries. A good example is when high school girls choose not to play high school soccer because the competition is not as good as it is at the club sport level.
But these girls miss out on all the wonderful social aspects of playing for their school team: bonding with teammates, school spirit activities. Instead of a fun sport, soccer becomes a job.
Burnout often occurs when these girls get to college. They may have been an elite club player in a smaller community — big fish in a small pond — but they are below average on their college team, and they become very unhappy. They’ve been doing nothing but playing soccer, and all of a sudden, they hate playing soccer. They want to quit, but if they do, they lose their scholarships.
Bush-Joseph: It’s the parents’ responsibility to set limits. This is no different than a child saying, “I want to eat nothing but candy every day of my life because I love eating candy.” Would you allow that to happen? Of course not.
There are relatively few professional athletes. If all you’ve been focusing on your whole life is your sport, and you don’t make it to the pros, what will you have to fall back on? That’s why it’s important for kids to grow up well-rounded, to have a range of skills and interests that go beyond that one sport.
The best thing parents can do is help their kids find a variety of pursuits that give them pleasure, regardless of their skill level. Help them remember to just be kids.
Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph, Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush (MOR) Medical Director and head team physician for the Chicago White Sox, In addition to his Chicago White Sox role, he is an associate team physician for the Chicago Bulls. Dr. Bush-Joseph is also a member of the Major League Baseball Medical Advisory Board and was president of the Major League Baseball Team Physician Association in 2012.