When asking should kids play only one sport, here’s one more reason sports specialization can harm young athletes
Sometimes it’s easy to take advice from health care professionals and let it go in one ear and out the other because it contradicts what you see with your own two eyes. For instance, many doctors recommend that young athletes play more than one sport to avoid overuse injuries. But many parents and coaches ask should kids only play one sport when watching pro athletes stick to just one sport, and they seem to do just fine?
Alan K. Sokoloff, DC, team chiropractor for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and University of Maryland Terps, shares that the answer lies, in part, in how participating in two or more sports can help you enhance the skills required to absolutely master your sport of choice.
Should kids only play one sport? Developing enhanced skills
Playing only one sport “inhibits an athlete’s ability to develop other skills learned in other sports,” says Sokoloff, known by his athletic patients simply as “Dr. Sok.” That is why some of the top players in the nation have engaged in more than one professional sport.
Examples of this include Usain Bolt, who after trading in his Olympic medal-winning track shoes, subsequently spent time on the soccer field. Or Major League Baseball great Deion Sanders, who wound up winning two Super Bowls with the NFL.
Dr. Sok has also seen the advantages of playing two sports in his own home, as his daughter was a teen and played soccer, but also danced and did gymnastics. This enabled her to “develop upper and lower body muscles in different ways,” says Dr. Sok, “paving her way to ultimately play soccer at a very high level.” It also helped her learn balance and coordination, which is extremely important for young athletes.
Participating in more than one sport at a young age also gives athletes a greater chance to develop more motor skills, adds Dr. Sok. These types of skills are beneficial and cross over to a lot of sports that involve jumping, running, dodging, catching and throwing.
“Watching so many kids get hurt around [my daughter], I am proud every time she takes the field,” Sokoloff said. “And while all accidents and injuries are not preventable, you have to do what you can to prepare your body to be at its best.” What Dr. Sok is referring to is that early specialization in sports can also increase your risk of injury.
Early sports specialization and injury risk
STOP SPORTS Injuries, a group created by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, when addressing should kids only play one sport shares that overuse injuries are more difficult to diagnose than injuries sustained due to a fall or hit. This is mainly because they are “subtle and usually occur over time.” Unfortunately, they are harder to treat too.
Some of the most common overuse injuries for young athletes include Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, tennis elbow or youth pitching elbow, and issues with the shoulder. These can result in the athlete feeling pain, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing increased headaches, suffering the loss of feeling or weakness in the damaged area, and sometimes even noticing a shortness of breath.
Even knowing all of this, it may be hard to picture yourself participating in two sports while also turning your schoolwork in on time, dealing with other family obligations and having time to visit with friends. How do you make it work?
Making two or more sports work
When asked how young athletes can more easily incorporate adding a new sport into their already busy schedule, Dr. Sok shared that what worked for his daughter was participating in sports that took place at different times of the year.
For example, in addition to playing year-round soccer, she also played basketball in the winter and participated in track in the spring. Each of these sports allowed her to work on different skills without overwhelming her with a completely packed schedule.
They also made her a better soccer player. Namely, basketball improved her ability to move laterally and enhanced her eye-hand coordination, and track helped her increase her speed and build her upper body strength.
What about youth athletes who don’t want to play more than one sport?
Though playing more than one sport is beneficial, what do you do when there is only one sport you want to play? The answer is simple, says Dr. Sok: cross-train.
Work with a local athletic trainer or hire a qualified personal trainer to learn more about what type of exercises can help you build the muscles your sport does not typically rely on or use. Ask about the movements that are different than the movements you make every day when training for your sport but can benefit you in other ways.
“You need to have some good guidance on how to develop workouts that will help the athlete get better, stronger and faster using different drills and activities (outside the sport-specific ones) that can better round out the athlete,” he says.
SPENCER BARON, DC, DACBSP, served as a team chiropractic physician for the Miami Dolphins for 19 years and is author of “Secrets of the Game.” He currently serves as the team chiropractor for Nova Southeastern University Sports Medicine and is the president of NeuroSport Elite. In 2001 he helped establish the Pro Football Chiropractic Society and the Pro Baseball Chiropractic Society, bringing together some of the best sports chiropractors in the nation. Now he directs the same type of efforts to DoCS (Doctors of Chiropractic Sports at doc-sports.com), an organization committed to creating camaraderie and coaching within the chiropractic profession. Reprints of this article are permitted as long as it links back to the DoCS website: DoC-Sports.com.