NEW YORK – For young athletes, practicing less may be the key to long-term success.
Specialization, where athletes exclusively train in one sport year-round, can lead to more injuries and a lack of passion, particularly in athletes aged 13 or younger, said Dr. Eric Small, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and orthopedics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“Children who specialize in a sport before 14 tend to get two to three times more injuries,” Small said. “They typically don’t go on to play that sport or other sports [in high school or college]. They get burned out and they don’t pursue it.”
Small, a pediatric sports medicine professional for a quarter-century, is speaking from experience. Specialization, he said, used to be common only in individual sports like gymnastics, figure skating or tennis. However, the creation of more indoor facilities allow kids the opportunity to practice year-round in sports like baseball, soccer or lacrosse.
“In life, people want to keep up with the Joneses. Everyone else is doing it,” Small said. “They’re not really looking at the health concerns of the child. They just want to keep up.”
Some kids he treats said they practice six or seven times per week. He suggests cutting back to three or four times per week.
“Typically, the child is fine with that,” Small said. “It’s the parent that gets all upset.”
Young athletes who practice too much during the week might be more fatigued on game day. Small recommends practicing no more than 10 hours per week.
“If they go over that, then they’re going to fatigue, and their sports performance will be hampered,” Small said.
Stress fractures, a tiny crack in a bone caused by repetitive stress, are the most common injuries caused by overuse, Small said. Youth baseball and tennis players, because of the repetitive swinging motions, also suffer injuries from overuse, sometimes lower back stress fractures.
For a right-handed person, Small said, “If you’re only doing tennis or you’re only doing baseball, your left side of your body is underdeveloped and that leads to injuries.”
Though he advises against specialization in youth sports, high schoolers can generally handle it because their muscle groups are more developed.
Small, a parent to two athletes, said his children began specializing in tennis in ninth grade. Before then, they also played baseball and soccer.
Mixing it up, Small said, “protects [children] from injuries, they’re more well-rounded and they’re happier. As a general rule, with sports specialization, there are more negatives than positives.”