Kids and sports: Don’t specialize too soon

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New study shows playing a variety of sports may prevent injury in young kids

A growing number of kids in the U.S. are playing sports seriously at a young age, but new research shows specializing in one single sport too soon may not be the healthiest for your child.

According to a recent report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids who play just one sport are more likely to get injured, stressed out and burned out.

The AAP estimates nearly 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by the time they’re 13 years old. Experts believe increased pressure to compete well in sports is likely to blame.

Catherine Sargent, MD, and Matt Ellington, MD, are pediatric orthopedic surgeons at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, recently ranked among the nation’s 50 best hospitals for children’s orthopedics by U.S. News and World Report.

Why young kids are prone to injury 

Both Sargent and Ellington agree with AAP’s report. They say overuse injuries are common among young patients who play a competitive sport, and playing the same sport repetitively adds stress to the growing body.

“Kids are not little adults,” Sargent said. “They’re different both physically and emotionally and that’s important to keep in mind.”

She says different areas of the body are prone to injuries at different stages of growth.

“A child’s skeleton is not fully developed,” she said. “There are cartilage growth plates in the bones and where muscles and tendons attach which are weak spots and can become inflamed with excessive stress.”

Sargent recommends parents hold off on specializing in one sport until the child is at least 15 or 16 years old.

She says waiting can minimize the risk of overuse injuries and will give your child the maturity needed to deal with emotional aspects of playing competitively.

Overuse injuries: Signs and symptoms

Watch for pain. If your child complains that something hurts, Ellington says that’s usually the first sign of a problem.

“Overuse injuries shouldn’t be taken lightly,” he said. “These injuries can progress from pain during activities to eventually, feeling pain with activities of daily life.”

Some of the most common signs of overuse injury include:

  • Pain that is hard to tie to an exact injury or event
  • Pain that worsens with activity
  • Swelling
  • Changes to the child’s form of playing or technique
  • Less interest in practice

If your young one still wants to specialize

While it’s not a good idea to get too intense before kids have reached puberty, Ellington recognizes there are special cases where young children really do enjoy getting serious at a young age.

Certain sports like figure skating and diving require a child to specialize early because performance in these sports peaks before a child fully develops physically. AAP says more research is needed to find out the long-term health effects of specializing in these types of sports.

If your young child is serious about a sport and specializing, Ellington has the following tips:

  • Mix it up: Make sure your child plays multiple sports, not just one, to decrease the chance of injury.
  • Train kids carefully. Attend practices to check on your child, talk with coaches and ensure the training environment is healthy.
  • Talk with your child’s pediatrician: Discuss your child’s goals with their doctor to make sure they are realistic. Work with your child’s pediatrician to develop a plan.
  • Take time off. Encourage your child to take a break. Each year a child should take at least three months off from their particular sport, in increments of one month. They can still play other sports at this time. Young athletes should take one to two days off to help prevent overuse injury

Dell Children’s is a Seton hospital and part of Ascension, the largest non-profit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

The Dell Children’s orthopedics program offers specialty care for children with a variety of orthopedic problems, from sports injuries to broken bones and congenital bone conditions.

Learn more about the nationally-ranked orthopedics program at Dell Children’s.