Earlier this month, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) released an official statement with six recommendations intended to reduce the number of injuries associated with single-sport specialization.
For athletes and parents with dreams of a college scholarship and/or a professional contract, the recommendations are words to live by:
1. Delay specializing in a single sport for as long as possible: Sport specialization is often described as participating and/or training for a single sport year-round. Adolescent and young athletes should strive to participate, or sample, a variety of sports. This recommendation supports general physical fitness, athleticism and reduces injury risk in athletes.
2. One team at a time: Adolescent and young athletes should participate in one organized sport per season. Many adolescent and young athletes participate or train year-round in a single sport, while competing in other organized sports simultaneously. Total volume of organized sport participation per season is an important risk factor for injury.
3. Less than eight months per year: Adolescent and young athletes should not play a single sport more than eight months per year.
4. No more hours-per-week than age in years: Adolescent and young athletes should not participate in organized sport and/or activity more hours per week than their age (i.e., a 12-year-old athlete should not participate in more than 12 hours per week of organized sport).
5. Two days of rest per week: Adolescent and young athletes should have a minimum of two days off per week from organized training and competition. Athletes should not participate in other organized team sports, competitions and/or training on rest and recovery days.
6. Rest and recovery time from organized sport participation: Adolescent and young athletes should spend time away from organized sport and/or activity at the end of each competitive season. This allows for both physical and mental recovery, promotes health and well-being and minimizes injury risk and burnout.
For coaches of club teams, these are words that may put them out of business.
The release of the recommendations, earlier this month, was timed to coincide with the publication of the October issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, which is devoted to research on the effects of early sports specialization. The four literature reviews and 10 studies provide the “why” for the NATA advice.
“Studies show that young athletes often see specialization as a prerequisite to advancing - making the varsity team, earning a college scholarship or progressing to the professional level,” said NATA President, Tory Lindley, MA, ATC in a press release. “When athletes specialize too early, or engage in excessive play, they are increasing the probability of injury and reducing the chances of achieving their goals. We want to help athletes and parents recognize health is a competitive advantage.”
Two of the studies looked at youth baseball players. One found that those who focused on baseball alone before age 13, had a higher frequency of arm injuries than those who played multiple sports. The other determined that young pitchers who also played catcher, threw 100-plus innings per year, threw 80-plus pitches per game, or threw eight-plus months in a year were 2-5 times more likely to have their career ended by, or need surgery for, an elbow or shoulder injury.
Furthermore, those who specialized early but had the good fortune to still get to the professional level suffered more serious injuries than those who had played multiple sports.
An investigation of female basketball, soccer, and volleyball players found those who specialized were more likely to suffer hip and knee injuries than those who played other sports, too.
Instead of looking at athletes, two other studies focused on coaches, comparing those at the club level with their high school counterparts. One found that high school coaches were better prepared for a medical emergency. The other determined that the high school coaches, not surprisingly, were far more concerned with the academic demands on their athletes’ lives.
Another study revealed, perhaps, just how futile all this specialization is. The investigation of collegiate scholarship athletes found that a largely disproportionate share were the children and/or siblings of collegiate and/or professional athletes.
In short, the $1,200 to $6,000 that the typical club-sport parents devote to their child playing each year — not to mention the cost of the medical care for the much higher rate of injuries — would be better spent somewhere else.