When discussing topics that focus on the genuine health and safety concerns for athletes, I like to seek out information from those who deal with such things on a regular basis. One group I would have to include in this discussion would be athletic trainers. The importance of, and weight behind, suggested guidelines these individuals might give (through their national association) would have to be held in high regard as they are certainly on the front lines of this issue.
A recent recommendation from NATA, published in the article New Guidelines to Prevent Pediatric Overuse Injuries in Sports at HealthNewsDigest.com, include six steps for making school athletics safer:
Pre-participation physical exams (PPEs),
Identification of physical risk factors,
Training and conditioning programs,
Delayed sports specialization.
(For more detailed information on these suggested steps go HERE)
Each of these guidelines helps to decrease the risk of overuse injuries through the proactive approach they take--they are directed right at the root causes of the problem. However, there are two I would like to discuss in more detail.
Training and conditioning programs: It cannot be stressed enough that proper functional movement-type training be an integral part of every athlete's program. What this means is that the athlete be conditioned in the same manner their sport requires them to move, and that strong consideration be given to how the body moves as a unit to produce these required motions.
Sports movements are not generally accomplished by using only one or two muscles but rather using many muscle groups, connected in sequence. The body's kinetic chain--in this reference, how all muscles work together--is what allows for quick, powerful, efficient, effective, and SAFE movements to occur. Leaving areas of the chain weak and untrained diminishes its effectiveness and safety.
Delayed sports specialization: This suggestion is referring to the current trend of athletes specializing in only one sport at younger and younger ages, well before puberty. This tends to stifle wide-ranging physical movement development and increases risk of overuse injury due to consistent overabundance of repetitive motion--just too much of the same movements over and over.
However, I want you to notice the very important word "delayed" in their recommendation. There are some who have taken this "sports specialization is bad" theme to the extreme, interpreting it to mean NEVER. In light of this, I would like to add to this piece a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics policy page:
Research supports the recommendation that child athletes avoid early sports specialization. Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.
As you can see by the above quote, and the guidelines from NATA, it is not "never" that they are recommending but much later than what the current trends are showing.
Personally, and in general, I would rather a student athlete wait until they are in their freshman or sophomore year of high school before they consider any form of specialization. And this is only if THEY THEMSELVES decide they want to take their abilities in a specific sport to the next level. If not, I encourage student athletes to participate in multiple sports, of their choosing, all through high school.