Wednesday August 23 2017
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The 12-Month, One-Sport Athlete

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A lot of people reminisce about the “good old days” when they were growing up. They played a variety of sports all year; fall was football and soccer season, winter was basketball and wrestling, and spring was for baseball and lacrosse.

Although every individual’s selection of chosen sports varies, the common theme of differentiation remains. Fast forward ahead to today’s young athletes and the “multi-sport” youth athlete title is rare. There are very few “athletes,” but instead there are “baseball players” or “basketball players” or “hockey players.” Young athletes have pigeon-holed themselves into specializing in one sport at younger ages than ever, and many are playing their one chosen sport virtually year round.

Why are young athletes nowadays playing only one sport year-round?  There are three main reasons behind specialization. First, there is now, more than ever, an opportunity to specialize. With the evolution of “select” or “travel” teams, young athletes can play their sport outside of its normal playing season. While this seems like a good way to help practice and improve, there are dangers to playing one sport all year. Second, families are investing time and money into opportunities to play all year for a long-term goal of the hopes of earning an athletic college scholarship. Third, parents and players feel like they will fall behind developmentally if they are not continuously working on improving themselves in their chosen sport. 

Take baseball as an example. In youth baseball, kids can play in the spring season with their school team or community league. Then, they play organized baseball in the summer, and continue to play in leagues in the fall.  There are also college showcases for the high school aged players, indoor winter leagues (if you live in the northern states), and individual lessons with instructors that can last up until the end of the year and the start of preparing for the next season. 

Playing one sport year-round is often not a good thing, and can have detrimental physical and emotional effects on young athletes. The volume of sports-specific repetition (i.e., swinging a bat, throwing a ball, jumping, running, swim strokes, tennis serves) that young bodies are taking on in a year’s time is more than what most professional athletes take on.  Professional and other elite-level athletes have distinct “off-season” times where they focus more on recovery (physical and mental), regeneration, and strength training to prepare for the next competitive season.  This high volume of repetition on the immature bodies of young athletes increases the risk and likelihood of suffering an overuse injury.  Overuse injuries include stress reactions/stress fractures to the growth plate area of the bone, muscle strains/tears, and ligament sprains/tears. 

Playing one sport year round also may increase the non-physical stress a young athlete will experience which may lead to “burnout.” Burnout is a condition where the student athlete loses interest in the sport and wishes to discontinue playing. 

In a time where backyard play is less and organized play is more, playing just one sport for 10-12 months a year is found to decrease “athleticism,” increase the risk of overuse injury and burnout, and is not recommended foryoung, growing student athletes. 

Call Allegheny Health Network Sports Performance at 412.437.3001 or visit on the web at www.ahn.org/sportsperformance to help design a customized program that is age appropriate and will build a better overall athlete.

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