Why You Want Your Kids to Play Multiple Sports [New Study]

Why You Want Your Kids to Play Multiple Sports [New Study]

High school athletes who tended to focus on one sport were 50 percent more likely to get hurt than those who hadn’t specialized. Injuries included ankle sprains, knee tendonitis, and stress fractures.

Back in the day, high school athletes played whatever sport was in season, without question or debate. Football occupied the fall, and then basketball rolled into track and field. Baseball took up the spring and early summer. The four-letter athlete was the naturally ordained master of the universe.

Those days are long gone. Now there is intense pressure on gifted young athletes to focus on one, and only one, sport. Each coach, whether high school or club, is likely to insist that his athletes eschew all other sports. The softball coach prohibits soccer, and the soccer coach won’t let her players participate in basketball or track. And then we are told, with great authority and some accuracy, that multisport athletes will never develop enough skill in any one sport to get a college scholarship. What’s a parent to do?

Single sport athletes are twice as likely to become injured than those who play several sports

Some helpful information comes from a recent study on lower extremity (upper leg, knee, ankle, and foot) injuries to high school athletes, conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, and published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. The study was conducted at 29 Wisconsin high schools during the 2015-16 school year, and involved more than 1,500 student athletes, equally divided between girls and boys. The results weigh strongly in favor of participation in multiple sports.

The study examined injuries described as acute, gradual, recurrent, or repetitive-use, and covered only injuries to the lower musculoskeletal system (from the hip down). Of the 1,500 student athletes who were studied, 235 suffered injuries serious enough to require at least a week away from sports activity.

Injured most often were the ankle (43%), the knee (23%), and the upper leg (13%). The types of injuries included ligament sprains (41%), muscle/tendon strains (25%), and tendonitis (20%).

The results are surprisingly one-sided. They strongly support young athletes playing several sports. During the time span of the study, single sport athletes sustained 60% more lower extremity injuries than did multisport athletes.

Don’t let overuse and overtraining burn out your young athlete

There is no doubt that putting all your sports eggs in one basket is the surest way to star athlete status and/or a college scholarship. However, as UFAI Director Dr. Bob Baravarian cautions, a single sport athlete is usually not well prepared for any strenuous physical activity beyond the specific requirements of his/her chosen sport. Additionally, repeated activities of a single sport can cause overuse injuries. Dr. Baravarian advises that cross training leads to a better prepared whole body, while also making the repetition of the same activities less problematic.

Noting that the Wisconsin study shows the ankle is injured far more often than the knee and upper leg, Dr. Baravarian also advises that proprioceptive (balancing) exercises are essential to prevent potential sprains of the ankle. (Proprioception refers to the human body’s unconscious awareness of its own spatial orientation. Common examples of proprioceptive exercise are wobble boards or balancing devices, used both to prevent ankle sprains, and after a sprain happens.)

All of the above findings are further confirmed by a 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which establishes that sports specialization leads to an increase in overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout.

The AAP report concludes, and we here at UFAI concur, that delaying sports specialization until after puberty will both minimize the risks of injury, and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success.

So encourage your kids to play all kinds of sports. That will keep their growing bodies strong and healthy, and, we hope, without need for our services. However, if your star athlete suffers an ankle or foot injury, know that our team at UFAI is here for you.

Listen to the NPR interview here:

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