Is Specialization Helping or Hurting our Young Athletes?

Is Specialization Helping or Hurting our Young Athletes?

You want your children to focus on one specific sport, so they can be a star player. But, is that the right thing to do?

Under tremendous pressure to stand out and win, young athletes often specialize in one sport way too soon. But studies are inconclusive that training in one sport is the ultimate path to becoming an elite athlete. So, does the risk of specializing early outweigh the risk of an overuse injury?

To learn more about overuse injuries and common injuries we spoke with Seth C. Gamradt, MD, director of orthopaedic athletic medicine at Keck Medicine of USC and an associate professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and James E. Tibone, MD, professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC. Both work with USC athletes and other major sports teams, like the New York Giants, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers, Kings and Rams.

Seth C. Gamradt, MD, James E. Tibone, MD

Young athletes have more overuse injuries. Why?

Overuse injuries are on the rise, due to early specialization and longer sports seasons. Young people are playing the same sports year-round instead of switching sports every season. And it is not just one sport where these injuries are occurring — it is all of them: swimming, football, baseball and volleyball, to name a few. However, the type of injury varies between sports.

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It is pretty clear that the more you perform a certain action to hone a skill, the more likely you are to master it. But, by specializing too soon, young athletes become more at risk of facing recurring injuries of overuse that can lead to lifelong problems and burnout.

Types of overuse injuries

No matter their age, or whether they’re recreational or elite athletes, people can experience an overuse injury when the frequency of play and motion is increased and the duration and intensity of the sport is maximized without proper downtime and rest. When the activity is performed over and over with no variation in workout, an overuse injury occurs, causing pain, tendinitis and even stress fractures. Shoulder injury is common for swimmers and volleyball players. Baseball players develop elbow injuries. Runners experience knee injuries, when they ramp up training and intensity too quickly.

How to avoid and treat overuse injuries

The simplest way to avoid these types of injuries is to reduce the amount of activity and intensity. Most orthopaedic surgeons recommend taking a break from that sport for at least three months during the year to avoid overuse injuries.
Instead of playing baseball year-round, cross-train with another sport, to stay in shape while giving parts of your body a break in between.

If you notice pain from working out, back off your training and give your body time to rest. In the worst-case scenario, you might need to change sports altogether. If you are a parent with a child who is specializing in a sport, make sure they are keeping track of how their body feels and try to get ahead of any potential overuse injuries by building in rest time.

Our orthopaedic surgeons do not just treat collegiate and professional athletes. We treat everyone from weekend warriors to high school athletes to preadolescents just learning to play sports.

by Heidi Tyline King

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top orthopaedic physicians in the world, be sure to schedule an appointment, by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting