Below is a great article written by Cordelia Carter, Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. It explains why early sport specialization may not be the best route to develop athletes or keep them injury free. In addition, the lack of an off-season is leading to increased exposure to potential injuries and possibly developing overuse injuries. Read it here: Why are kids injured more often in sports
The lazy man's summary:
“Gone are the days when kids played multiple sports with breaks both during and between seasons. Today, kids specialize in one sport from increasingly young ages.”
“As a result, pediatric sports surgeons like myself have seen dizzying increases in the number of sport-related injuries in child and adolescent athletes. In New York state alone, the rate of ACL reconstructions performed on children aged 3-20 more than doubled from 1990 to 2009.”
“One recent study found that junior elite tennis players who specialized in tennis had a 50% higher rate of injury than those who played other sports. Another group of researchers determined that the rate of anterior knee pain among adolescent female athletes who specialize in one sport (e.g., basketball, soccer, or volleyball) is 1.5 times greater than those who play multiple sports. Young baseball pitchers who pitch more than 100 innings per year have been reported to have an injury rate 3.5 times greater than those who pitch less.”
“There is evidence demonstrating that kids who play multiple sports while they’re young and wait to specialize until the early teenage years are actually better athletes. For example, one recent study described survey results from 376 female Division I intercollegiate athletes. Of these elite-level athletes, 83% had participated in multiple sports as youngsters (three sports per athlete) and the average age of sport specialization was 13 years.”
My 2 cents:
Early sports specialization and the combination of increased sedentariness in children is a very dangerous combination. Kids are sitting in classrooms for a good part of the day, and now, more and more kids spend the remainder of the day either on their phone or playing on the computer/video games. After school sports is a structured playtime, as they are put through drills and taught a sport. Kids still get some random play time by way of gym/recess; however, you could argue that this has become devalued and even turned into more of a structured play time. Random play is important because it exposes kids to a variety of movement patterns reactively in a stimulating environment. Games like tag or climbing on playgrounds teaches young kids how to move naturally. Structured environments or playing only one particular sport exposes kids to only a few movements in a repetitive fashion.
Therefore, as a parent, you can help out by encouraging your kids to play multiple sports and partake in games/random play. However, we need to take this one step further. Overtraining or overexposure is very dangerous too. Having some resemblance of an off-season is very important.
So your kid plays football, basketball, and baseball. Alright great! Football and basketball create a similar wear and tear on the body, so playing baseball is a good change of pace and allows the lower body to rest. However, I see far too many kids playing baseball and AAU or travel ball (name your sport) at the same time. Now you have just created an environment of increased exposure to injury. It does not take a mathematician to figure out that the more games you play during the year, the risk for injury will automatically rise. The exposure obviously rises if you go from playing 50 basketball games in a year to 75-100 games. I would argue that the risk for injury starts to compound at this time as well, because they are playing in a physically fatigued/burnt out state now (mentally burnt out; maybe yes, maybe no).
So please help your youth athletes out by encouraging random play. Make an effort to expose them to a variety of sports at a young age, and then specialize as they mature. Finally, some form of an off-season from intense competition will help avoid mental and physical burnout in youth athletes.