Kids who specialize in one sport may have a higher risk of injury, a new study suggests.
The findings, which draw from a multi-year, ongoing study of 10,138 older children and teens living throughout the United States, show that volume of vigorous activity strongly predicts injury for both boys and girls. In other words, those who engage in the most hours of intense activity per week are the most likely to suffer an injury.
“It’s wonderful for a child to love a sport and to want to engage in it, but we must keep in mind the number of hours spent playing,” says study author Alison Field, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Brown University. “They add up pretty quickly.”
She says she hopes the study’s conclusions, which appear in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, will help coaches, parents, and doctors guide young athletes toward less intense, less specialized training.
Moderation is best
The study helps explain some of the dangers of sports specialization. Athletes who focus on one particular sport tend to practice more frequently and intensely compared to athletes who don’t.
“But if we send out a message that says kids shouldn’t specialize, the worry is that parents and kids will just add another sport on top,” Field says. “So they’ll keep their current sport and do it at a very high level and just add one more sport so they’re not ‘specializing.’ That would really increase their volume, so it probably would not be a good idea.”
Instead, Field says that moderating the amount of time young athletes spend engaging in vigorous physical activity may offer the best solution—and if they must specialize in a sport, replace some training with different forms of exercise, such as yoga and conditioning.
A common fear among parents is that if their children don’t play more and more, they’ll fall behind and won’t ultimately be as good an athlete.
“But it may actually be the opposite,” she says. “If children do too much, they may get injured and fall behind. And it’s important also to remember that they should enjoy doing their sport; it should be something that doesn’t overwhelm their life.”
Differences for girls and boys
The study also suggests that sports specialization carries risks even when considered separately from volume of activity. These risk patterns differed for girls and boys. For girls, once volume was accounted for, no particular sport stood out as being extra risky to specialize in. However, specialization in general increased girls’ injury risk by about 30%.
In contrast, specialization in general did not significantly increase boys’ risk of injury, once volume was accounted for. But certain sports- baseball or gymnastics and cheerleading- did increase their risk.
The precise reasoning behind the gender differences in risk is not yet clear, but it’s an area the researchers hope to explore further in future studies, Field says. For girls in particular, they also plan to examine age-related differences.
“There’s been a lot of concern about females having higher risk of certain injuries,” Field says. “The question is: Is that risk highest just as they’re going through their pubertal growth spurt, and then does it come back down a bit? And then we need to talk to coaches and trainers and say, ‘What can we do to mitigate that risk?'”
Additional authors are from Brown. The National Institutes of Health and the orthopedic surgery department at Boston Children’s Hospital funded the work.
Source: Kerry Benson for Brown University