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Sports Specialization & Overuse Injuries-My thoughts

“Please Mom & Dad, I Need to Rest”


In an article by Cliff Sims he outlines a plea from renown orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, surrounding the year round, youth sports specialization, culture we live in today. This is just one of many articles addressing this topic, some of which have come from interviews with Andrews himself. He is considered by many to be the foremost expert on sports injury surgery. I’ve read many of these articles over the last few years and finally feel compelled enough to write my own.

When I was a high school athlete myself, I made a decision then that drives me absolutely crazy now by the kids I coach in a Strength & Conditioning context. That is, I quit all sports except one so I could ‘specialize’. Soccer was my game and after my sophomore year, I did what you’re ‘supposed to do’ if you want to be really good; I gave up baseball, track, and basketball so I could play soccer year round. After all, if I was going to get a ‘scholarship’ I had to get as much ‘exposure’ as I possibly could, right? My main reason for making this decision was that I loved to play soccer. But a close second was the scholarship opportunity.  Though my motive for wanting a scholarship didn’t come from a desire for my parents to be able to brag or make up for a failed athletic past through me, but came from within myself because I knew we couldn’t afford college otherwise. When it was all said and done, I went to a junior college for three semesters before transferring to a four-year, Division I, school and then got a chance to play in the minor leagues for a few years. And yes, I earned a partial soccer scholarship all through college. It wasn’t a bad outcome. The obvious question that remains is if I would have had the same result if I continued to play multiple sports in high school. No one knows for sure but a friend of mine who is a former major leaguer once said that “the talent to play at the big league level is determined at conception.” You can interpret that statement how you’d like.

Today, I see a much more intense version of the youth sports experience than even the one I had. While I decided to play only one sport, (which is not bad in an of itself; if you only like one sport, then play one sport), I still had pockets of time throughout the year where I didn’t touch a soccer ball. I lifted weights, ran, played pick up basketball, or even did nothing. These “pockets” of time lasted anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Even with this time off, I still had a pretty successful career.

From my perspective, the problem I see today is created from MOTIVE and/or COST. Doing it for mom and dad is not the right motive. Doing it to the point it causes you avoidable, chronic injury or mental burnout is not the right COST. But I see it over and over and over again. Most sports are represented in this problem though I see it particularly in volleyball (back, knee, shoulder), baseball (elbow, shoulder), cheerleading (back), tennis (elbow), and basketball (knee, shins).  

When a kid with one of these injuries comes to me with a doctor’s note or from a visit to the athletic trainer, the answers to my follow up questions to them and/or mom and dad, too many times, point to overuse. Alarmingly enough, the concern from the parents or athlete doesn’t so much come from the fact that a child is injured as much as it is getting them ready for a ‘showcase’ or ‘combine’ the upcoming weekend. When I ask about the possibility of them sitting out the weekend, I am looked at as the crazy one.

Sport specialization has become an epidemic; an epidemic driven by coaches (BOTH high school and club) along with parents. I believe the kids are even brainwashed to a point. They’re told by so many people that this is what they’re ‘supposed to do’ even though they are in physical pain, burnt out, and/or injured. I think the kids have a hard time establishing what is real, right, and healthy because of the decisions and influence of the people who are supposed to care about them.

Again, I’m not saying playing only one sport is wrong. I’m not even saying playing multiple sports can’t be dangerous. On the other side of the spectrum, I have kids that I work with that play one school sport and two club sports in the same season, all at one time. This scenario not only creates challenges for them but me also. How do I help a kid get stronger and faster when they never rest?

I really don’t know what to do about it all. Maybe it starts with coaches who are aware of this problem being courageous enough to simply start asking one parent, one coach, one kid at a time, “What’s your motive?” and “What is the cost of what you’re doing?” Perhaps we as coaches need to be trained more on how to spot overuse symptoms and how to respectfully broach the subject with kids and parents. Identifying the parents who actually do recognize the madness of sports specialization and asking them to educate their friends who don’t “get it” may be another piece of the solution.

Whatever we do and however we do it, something needs to be done soon if we want to reverse the trend of burnout and overuse injuries. If you haven’t done so already, read the article I linked to this piece at the top of the page as well as check out a position paper from the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. Both give great anecdotal and scientific evidence of what I’m saying. But, no matter what, listen and watch to see if your kids are saying, either by word or action, “Please Mom and Dad, I need to rest”.


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Comment by John Mikula on November 23, 2014 at 9:39pm

Coach, great article.  I think another caveat to this would be the potential injuries that young athletes incur or may incur due to the inclusion of advanced weightlifting techniques that seem so prevalent in many sports training programs today.  All too often, "kids" aged 12 and up are expected to train like athletes who are 22.  Perhaps, its a pill that's hard to swallow, but the reality is that adolescents are not "little adults" although many coaches want them to be just that.  It makes me cringe to be honest to watch the volume of programs that place so much value on 1RM lifts as the trademark for training athletes.  If so, wouldn't this be considered participation in another sport being that this type of training often involves periodized programs that mimic those of competitive weightlifters? 

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