Today’s professional athletes are among the most well-known personalities on the planet. They also ink contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. Sports has become a dream for many to reap fame and fortune.
During the last two decades, early specialization in sports has been on the rise. The three-sport athlete in high school and college, once a common occurrence, is becoming rarer. Specialization is not reserved for older teens. Middle-school and even elementary-aged children are playing a single sport throughout the year and hiring personal coaches to help hone their skills. Multiple daily practice sessions, games, and competitions don’t leave much time for the necessary rest and recovery periods.
More data is showing that early specialization leads to overuse and other injuries. Cross-training and playing multiple sports may help develop better overall athletes.
What Is Early Specialization?
Early specialization is when children under the age of 12 participate in intensive training and competition for more than 8 months each year at the exclusion of free play and other sports.
Organized sports remain popular in the U.S. An estimated 30 million American children ages 6 to 18 participate in team sports and almost 60 million are in some type of organized athletics.
Benefits of Cross-Training
Cross-training may have both physical and mental benefits. One way to cross-train is to engage in sports that rely more strongly on different muscle groups and movement patterns. Some examples of complementary sports include football and martial arts, baseball and track, and swimming and soccer. Cross-training can also take place within the season of any sport. A physical therapist can create an exercise and recovery plan specific to the athlete.
The benefits of cross-training are many and include the following:
- Enhances diverse motor skill development
- Reduces overuse injuries
- Improves joint stability
- Provides better balanced muscular strength
- Decreases burnout
Dangers of Early Specialization
Specializing before the age of 12 (or puberty) can be particularly harmful. Bones, muscles, and tendons are still developing and growing.
Putting repeated pressure on the body can result in overuse injuries such as the following:
- Shin splints. Soreness or pain along the inner side of your shin bone.
- Patellofemoral syndrome. Pain in the front of the knee from pressure overload on the kneecap.
- Osgood-Schlatter. Knee pain caused by a stretch injury to the growth plate at the top of the shin bone.
- Achilles tendinitis. Irritation and inflammation of the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the heel.
- Little Leaguer’s elbow. This is repetitive stress on the growth plate inside of a child’s elbow.
The potential upside of a lucrative scholarship or pro deal outweighs the dangers for some. Interestingly, a study showed that 88 percent of NCAA Division I athletes participated in two or three sports. Only 30% of those athletes specialized in the sport at age 12 or younger. The likelihood of a child progressing to elite status is also worth considering. According to the NCAA, chances are small for high school athletes to compete at the college level. Only about 2.2% of high school male baseball players will play at the Division I level; only 2.9% will play football; and 1.0% will play football. Females don’t fare any better. Only 1.3% will play Division I basketball; 1.2% will play volleyball; and 2.4% will play soccer.
Some interesting statistics that dispute the perceived connection of specialization and elite athletes include the following:
- 88% of 2018 NFL draft picks played multiple sports in high school
- NBA players who were multi-sport athletes in high school had longer careers with fewer injuries
- The average age of specialization for college and professional hockey players is 14
Rest Is Important
Kids may seem indestructible, but their bodies are still changing and growing. They need adequate rest between games, practices, and competitions.
There should be at least one day of rest each week. For anyone who plays sports throughout the year, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends a one-month break three times a year. Rest periods provide physical and psychological recovery. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents limit the number of hours their child practices/plays to their age. Those who practice more than their age, particularly younger athletes, are 30% more likely to sustain an injury.
Physical Therapy for Athletes
Part of a well-rounded conditioning program can include specific exercises prescribed by a physical therapist.
ProFysio Physical Therapy offers multiple treatments that benefit athletes:
- Sport-specific conditioning
- Plyometric exercise
- Stretching exercise
- Kinesiology taping
- Manual joint mobilization and stretching
We also offer therapies for those rehabilitating an injury or recovering from surgery:
Whether your child plays one or multiple sports, no doubt you want them to stay healthy and continue to enjoy their athletic pursuits. Cross-training and complementary therapies can be important tools to reduce injuries and burnout.
Schedule a free consultation with one of our specialists to learn more about how ProFysio can help your child develop as a well-rounded athlete. Call us at (732) 812-5200 or use our online form.