Focusing on one sport ups a teen’s risk of injury

Young athletes underestimate the extent to which they have specialized


Playing just one sport — such as basketball — most of the year may increase a teen’s risk of injury.  

1911/ iStockphoto

“Fun is the number one reason kids play sports,” says David Bell. “And lack of fun is the number one reason kids quit.” Nothing takes the fun out of sports faster than an injury. That’s why Bell, an athletic trainer, conducted a new study to figure out why kids get hurt playing sports. And specializing in a single sport is a key risk factor, he and his team now find.

Their data are among the first to show such a link. And they’ll share their findings soon in an upcoming issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Bell and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison surveyed more than 300 high-school athletes about the sports they took part in and any past sports injuries.

To probe how specialized these athletes were, the researchers asked if they had ever quit other sports to focus on just one. One question also asked if the students had spent more than eight months a year training for a single sport. Finally, the researchers questioned the teens about whether they thought their primary sport (whatever it was) was more important than others.

The researchers classified any athlete who answered yes to all three questions as highly specialized. Saying yes to two questions earned an athlete a rating as moderately specialized. Kids who answered yes to one or none were deemed  low-specialty athletes.

Fewer than a third of the students (30 percent) said they played just one sport. Yet more than a third (36 percent) still fell into the highly specialized group. That surprised Bell’s team. And, importantly, highly specialized athletes were more likely to have had a knee or hip injury than were kids in the other groups. Students with no injuries were most likely to be in the low-specialization group.

Sorting out the details

Students who played one sport were no more or less likely to have experienced a sports injury than those who played more than one. Some people consider anyone who plays a single sport to be a specialist. But this study showed that kids who play more than one sport also can be specialized. It also showed that how specialized someone was — not the number of sports played — upped his risk of injury.

“We found that kids might be more specialized than they actually think,” Bell says. That’s an important conclusion, he adds. Indeed, he notes that kids, parents and coaches might all be underestimating the risk of injury.

“This article confirms that early specialization in one sport leads to a higher incidence of overuse injuries,” says Marc Hilgers. A sports-medicine doctor with Advocate Dreyer in Batavia, Ill., he was not involved in the study.

Bell’s team is now hoping to learn more about sports specialization in student athletes. They already have completed one study of more than 2,000 athletes who were 12 to 18 years old. Their findings are due to be published soon and could provide important data on how common specialization in teen sports is. The researchers also plan to study how the amount of time athletes spend playing a sport relates to their risk of injury.

The goal is to help parents and young athletes better understand how to limit that risk. Says Bell, “We want people to have as much information as possible so kids can participate in sports as safely as possible.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

athletic trainer    A health care professional who works with people who participate in sports. They provide exercises and guidance on how to move strengthen, stretch and train muscles and improve stamina so that people can limit the risk of injury in sports. Trainers may also work with physicians to assist in the treatment and rehabilitation of injured athletes.

colleague    Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

incidence    The rate or number of times something occurs.

primary    Most important or first.

specialization    The act of having focused — or specialized — on a particular interest, skill or technique.

sports medicine    The branch of medicine that focuses on the treatment and prevention of sports injuries.

survey    (v.)  To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

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