Sports Specialization: Preventing Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes

Sports specialization is defined as the intense year-round training in a single sport, with the exclusion of other sports. Sports specialization has become more accepted if an individual’s goal is to attain an "elite" status in that sport. The three main risks of early specialization in youth sports include: increased psychological stress on the athlete, potential increased rates of injury, and an increase in burnout and dropout rates. Any repetitive motion that is done in a sport can lead to overuse injuries.

Children and adolescents are at higher risk for overuse injuries than adults due to growth-related factors, such as the susceptibility of growth cartilage to injury and the adolescent growth spurt. It is recommended that sports specialization begin in late adolescence after growth changes have taken place.

How to prevent or avoid overuse injuries:

  • Proper education and supervision – Athletes, parents, and coaches should know the warning signs or symptoms of overuse injuries. Coaches should be trained in sports safety and in training technique. Parents should be involved in their children’s training and educated in proper technique.

  • Pre-participation physical exams – Athletes should be screened for potential risk factors.

  • Participation limits –Limit one sporting activity to 5 days per week. Take one day off from all organized physical activities per week. Take 2-3 months off from organized sports per year to improve strength and conditioning, let injuries heal, and to refresh the mind.

  • Training and conditioning programs – Athletes should participate in training and conditioning to improve endurance, strength, and agility to better prepare them for the sport.

  • Delayed sports specialization – Begin sports specialization in late adolescence.

Some common injuries associated with sports specialization are:

  • Osgood Schlatter’s Disease – inflammation of the area just below the knee where the tendon of the kneecap attaches to the shinbone.

  • Sever’s disease – inflammation of the growth plate in the heel of growing children.

  • Golfer’s Elbow – inflammation of the tendons that attach your forearm muscles to the inside of the bone at your elbow.

  • Tennis Elbow – inflammation of the tendons that join the forearm muscles on the outside of the elbow.

  • Runner’s Knee – pain in the front of the knee and around the patella or kneecap.

  • Little League Elbow – stress to the growth plate on the inside of the elbow.

  • Swimmer’s Shoulder – shoulder pain caused by connective tissue (a tendon) rubbing on a shoulder blade.

Good cross training activities for athletes to participate in to prevent injuries and burnout include: weight lifting, yoga, core strengthening, running, swimming, bicycling and participating in other sports during the off season.