When the diagnosis is a repetitive motion injury in a young athlete, a discussion about the dangers of specialization usually follows close behind.
It’s a universal concern.
Even the club and travel organizations that preach the importance of a year-round commitment acknowledge the issue.
“Specialization is causing an injury rate that never occurred when people played three sports and used different muscle groups,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “And the demands in terms of coaches wanting a year-round commitment is crazy, so the whole mindset has changed.”
Remember tennis elbow?
A repetitive motion injury can be anything from shoulder tendonitis in a pitcher to a stress fracture in a runner. Some of the resulting issues can be season-ending.
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A study earlier this year by the University of Wisconsin Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation makes the link. After focusing on high school and club athletes in the state, the initial findings showed that 23 percent of multi-sport athletes suffered an injury compared to 49 percent of the athletes who specialized.
“I’m not seeing a greater incidence than 10-13 years ago,” said Dave Byrnes, the longtime athletic trainer at Yorktown High School. “We’ve always had a large number of multi-sport athletes, but their seasons are overlapping more and more than in the past, which makes the injuries harder to manage. I think overuse and specialization is impacting the youth level more. I am getting more incoming athletes who have already dealt with stress fractures, growth plate injuries, cartilage injuries. That’s a big deal when you’re 13 or 14 and coming into high school athletics with an injury rap sheet.”
A clinical report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics this month recommends there be no sports specialization before the age of 15 or 16. Of course, there is a growing number of athletes whose only chance to make a varsity squad lies in concentrating on a single sport from middle school on.
“When the schools make it all about the elite athletes, as much as we talk about the value of school sports, you end up forcing kids and families into a club environment where they can get that early training just so they can play that sport at the varsity level,” said Tom Farrey, who leads the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.
There is a delicate balance that is not easy to maintain.
“Believe me, if you’re not doing something with your team, if you’re just rolling in and going through a couple of practices before the season begins, you’re probably not going to be competitive,” said Anthony Yacco, a Mahopac graduate who owns 4D Sports Performance Center and coaches the New York Swarm travel baseball teams. “Everybody is more educated now and understands the importance of doing the right work in a positive environment.”
Athletes who play three sports in high school are disappearing at schools with enrollments of 500 or more students. According to the latest Sports and Fitness Industry Association report, kids between the ages of 6 and 17 play 1.89 team sports on average.
There aren’t even many organized recreational or intramural options for older teens who are specializing outside tennis or golf.
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Specialization can also have social ramifications.
“We’re creating clumps of kids and differentiating them from one another, which may create barriers to interacting,” said Karl Erickson, a faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University who has a background in psychology. “It may result in social consequences. How much are kids mixing with kids who do different things and have different perspectives?
“The kids we’re talking about here are in early adolescence. It’s one of the most critical periods in life for identity development. My identity could solely be that of a basketball player. Now maybe that’s an awesome experience for some, but it can be very negative. We know a huge percentage of athletes never progress beyond high school and if my entire self-worth is based on me being a basketball player, if that’s gone after high school, what do I have left?”
ABOUT THE PROJECT: Journal News/lohud sports writers Josh Thomson and Mike Dougherty, along with photojournalist John Meore, fanned out this past spring and summer to investigate the growing world of youth sports in the Lower Hudson Valley for this series, Pay to Play.