The facts behind early sport specialization and increased injuries

The facts behind early sport specialization and increased injuries

NCSA Recruiting

The facts behind early sport specialization and increased injuries


USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Garland Cooper, was a three-time NFCA All-American (two-time first team) and Big Ten Player of the Year at Northwestern University. In 2012, Garland was inducted into the NU Hall of Fame having helped the Wildcats to a pair of Women’s College World Series appearances. She was also a first-round pick of the New England Riptide in the 2007 National Pro Fastpitch College Draft. Garland is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

From shin splints to sprained ankles, most student-athletes encounter a few bumps in the road. But new evidence suggests that specializing in a single sport makes them increasingly prone to serious injury.

In fact, a study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations found that high school athletes who specialized were 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury. And a recent study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine states that specialization not only increased risk of injury, but also contributed to burnout, such as loss of motivation, lack of enjoyment, stress and anxiety, and mood disturbances.

The culprit? Overuse syndrome. And adolescents are especially susceptible because their bodies are still developing.

Take a look at baseball, for example. Last year, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center stated a dramatic increase in the number of young athletes undergoing “Tommy John” surgeries to repair a pitching-related elbow injury from repetitive throwing. They found that the median age of the 444 patients who underwent surgery from 2002 to 2011 was 21 years old.

To understand which sports cause the most injuries among high schoolers, experts at HealthGrove aggregated data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission last year. Here’s what they found:

  1. Basketball: 119,589 annual injuries
  2. Football: 118,886 annual injuries
  3. Soccer: 45,475 annual injuries
  4. Baseball: 27,208 annual injuries
  5. Gymnastics, cheerleading, and dance: 22,671 annual injuries

MORE: A Few Surprises In The Data Behind Single-Sport And Multisport Athletes

“While the debate to specialize or not specialize is ever-changing among parents and coaches of student-athletes, the one thing we all agree on is being proactive about preventing injuries,” says Jason Smith, a former college coach and current Head Recruiting Coach at NCSA.

To help your child stay healthy and pain-free, there are a few measures you can take in preventing overuse injuries:

  • Correct improper technique. Repetitive trauma to the tendons, bones and joints is what causes your athlete to suffer an overuse injury. If they’re performing a skill incorrectly, these areas are experiencing even more stress.
  • Take note of the most common injuries. Every sport is different. In hockey, hip injuries are common because of the mechanics of the skating stride. Soccer players often suffer from ACL tears, and gymnasts combat wrist and elbow injuries. Knowing what to look out for can help you identify your athlete’s pain more quickly.
  • Take advantage of rest days. Even though teenagers are always on the go, your student-athlete should never skip a rest day. They need a physical—and mental—break to fully recover. Getting enough sleep can also help reduce injuries.

Read more: Why sleep needs to be part of your recruiting routine

  • Cross-train. Cross-training is an easy way to give the most-used muscles a break and switch up your child’s workout routine so they don’t get bored.


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