An increase in sport specialization -- whereby young athletes play only one competitive sport from an early age -- is causing a drastic rise in serious injuries among children, medical experts have warned.
With an abundance of riches awaiting talented youngsters fortunate enough to reach the pro ranks, parents, coaches and the kids themselves are increasingly tempted to focus on a single sport rather than playing several sports depending on the season.
With sports academies, travel teams, all-star leagues and off-season tournaments growing in number, children as young as 10 often find themselves concentrating on a sport year-round, much like a professional.
But with a professional approach, experts believe, comes professional-type injuries.
"The effects can be devastating," says Dr. Darin Padua, Associate Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of North Carolina and an expert in injury-prevention.
According to a report by Time Magazine's Sean Gregory, The Children Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) now treats 400 percent more anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears than it did in 1999. ACL tears are a common hazard for the pros, but until recently were uncommon in children.
"Kids are now doing the same sports as their heroes," CHOP's Dr. Theodore Ganley told Time. "They're doing things year-round, in multiple teams, in multiple leagues. Now they are getting the same injuries as their heroes."
Doctors have felt for years that an early decision to follow one sporting path greatly increased the chances of physical problems. ACL cases have skyrocketed, while baseball players are experiencing shoulder problems that would normally only be seen in much older athletes.
The specialization can, of course, lead to a greater skill set and the level of excellence among athletes of high school age or even younger has never been greater. It does though, comes with potential pitfalls that any parent would be foolish to ignore.
An imbalance in parts of the body can be created, especially in sports that have a specific repetitive motion or use the same muscle groups over and over. Baseball and soccer players have suffered in particular, although youth football stars as young as 6 have been treated for ACL injuries.
"They reach such a high skill level, but they are not physically mature enough to withstand those stresses," says Padua, who has devised an injury prevention program designed to minimize the risk of ailments such as those mentioned. "Typically, the kind of things we were once seeing in older elite level athletes are now occurring in young kids.
"There are multiple factors, but a major one is specialization. They play only one sport. Plus, they play that sport a lot. They don't just play soccer for three months, they might play it for eight or nine months. They are training all year. More practice, more games, maybe three games in close succession at a weekend tournament. The intensity and volume is higher. And so is the risk."
Yet could it be that while children who hone in on one sport believe they are increasing their potential for greatness, they are missing out on a valuable opportunity to enhance their athletic potential? Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu played four sports in high school and believes that all-round experience contributed to making him an NFL star.
"I didn't just play football as a kid," he told ThePostGame.com recently. "I played soccer, baseball, basketball as well. It made me a far better all-round athlete than I would have been otherwise and it is the reason I am in the league. I don't like to see kids playing just one sport. It is like they are pros from the age of 9 or 10. I don't like it and I don't understand it."
Female athletes who specialize have been found to be particularly susceptible to major knee injuries. A college scholarship can evaporate with a crunch of bone or snap of ligament, but the long-term effects can be even worse, with an enhanced risk of conditions such as arthritis in the future.
"I am so grateful that I had the chance to and was encouraged to play more than just soccer," says Abby Wambach, forward for the United States women's soccer team. "It allowed my whole body to develop, not just those muscles I use in soccer. It helps you really get to know your body and what you can do as an athlete and I think it did help me reduce my injuries."
Dr. Padua admits there is a difficulty in persuading children and coaches to adopt even his simple, bite-sized regimen that uses plyometric methods, can replace a typical warm-up, and takes only 15 minutes.
"Kids aren't going to listen much about the dangers until it happens to them and coaches don’t want it to take up too much time of a session," he says. "We have come up with the program that can be done quickly, easily, and reduces the likelihood of a huge problem. But not everyone wants to listen."
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