Specialization in Youth Sports: A Dangerous Game.

As an Athletic Trainer that has spent the better part of his career in the professional sports arena I am often times asked by well meaning parents what they can do to help their kid prevent injuries and get better at their chosen sport. They often times are taken by surprise when my answer is to give them the necessary rest and recovery period their bodies need to heal and develop their general athleticism by having them compete in sports or activities that are unrelated to their primary sport.  I am going to speak more directly about baseball because that is where most of my experience has been, but the principles can be applied to any sport you like such as swimming, soccer, volleyball, etc.

Due to many factors, just one of which is the continuing increase in the cost of higher education (I read once that college tuition costs are increasing at about 7% per year), many parents feel that to give their child a shot at a higher education they have to make sure that heir kid gets a full ride athletic scholarship. This leads them feel that they need to specialize and professionalize the child into a single sport at a very early age and focus all of their attention, year round, on that one sport. This has lead to a large increase in the occurrence of overuse and adult type injuries that require surgical intervention to repair, which the young athlete may never recover from. Dr. James Andrews, one of the premier orthopedic surgeons in professional sports and in particular Major League Baseball, stated in an article that half of injuries in youth sports stem from overuse and 30-40% of the Ulnar Collateral ligament reconstruction procedures ( the famous Tommy John procedure) he performs are on high school age kids even down to age 12.  Dr. Andrews recommends that kids take at least 2 months (3-4 months is preferable for overhead sport athletes) away from their primary sport to avoid these types of overuse injuries.

Another pressure that parents unfortunately run into is from the money vultures that have seen this trend of parents willing to do anything to make sure their kid succeeds, and they are more than willing to capitalize on this at the expense of both the well meaning parents and the kids. They get them with the promise of professional type instruction and maybe contacts to get them in front of college coaches and professional scouts. But they demand big dollars and full year round dedication to their program and their pocketbooks. Because of programs like this I often see kids who are competing on multiple teams during the same season.  The problem with this is that all of these teams are training like they are the only team the kid is participating in. A kid might pitch 6 innings for his high school team on Friday and 3 innings for his club team on Saturday then have to pitch at a college showcase on Sunday. Not even fully mature professional pitchers can maintain activity levels like that for very long without breaking down.

The long and short of it is that to avoid injury and give your kid a legitimate chance at achieving their full potential , their training regimen must  incorporate the necessary amount of rest and recovery. For throwers specifically, that means taking the ball away from them for a time. You don’t have to not do anything, but mix it up. Play basketball or soccer, or something. If your child develops as a more rounded athlete, they will make themselves better at their primary sport and probably remain a lot healthier too.

Jeremy Moeller, ATC

Athletic Trainer

Synergy Manual Physical Therapy

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