There has been a lot of talk lately about the negative effects of early sports specialization; and rightfully so. Articles from established, well-respected sources abound, citing increase in overuse injuries, early sports burnout, and an increase of more severe injuries (torn ACL's of the knee and UCL's in the elbow) never seen at such early ages, as proof that early sports specialization is a cause.
The reasoning behind why this is the case centers a large part on the continuous, sometimes high intensity, repetitive motion that early sports specialization can bring to the mix. In addition, that the lack of rest and recovery time for these, almost year-round, specializing athletes certainly adds a multiplying effect.
From my vantage point, I do see the logic here as it certainly does make sense. This especially hit home for me when my oldest daughter fell victim to an ACL tear at the ripe young age of 15--that's sophomore year in high school (she had been playing competitive soccer from age 8).
Those of you reading this who are parents, and who have had one or more of your offspring go through an injury of this type, and the rehab that goes along with it, know exactly what I mean when I say that it is a very trying experience. Not only for the athlete, but for the parents as well as you watch your child go through an exhaustive amount of work that you yourself would have difficulty with. And then they go out and play more--but I digress.
Getting back to the issue at hand--early sports specialization and its root cause. As stated earlier, most are pointing their finger right at early sports specialization as the reason for the higher rate of injury at early ages. That the solution to the problem is to move away from this type of practice by encouraging young athletes to expand their horizons and play/participate in a variety of sports and activities.
This, in general, is something I fully support as it does encourage a more well-rounded sports experience and better overall physical development of the athlete. However, this scenario does raise an important question for me. I guess it is just my nature to ask such, as I do have a little difficulty merely accepting things at face value.
My question, is it simply sports specialization that is causing the issue or is it something a little more complex? Of course, it does go without saying that not enough recuperation time (rest) certainly plays a major factor in increasing the risk of injury, but that is true whether you participate in one sport or in many sports throughout the year.
Taking this lack of "rest" out of the equation, is it the increase of repetitive motion that is the cause of what we are seeing or is it the lack of well-rounded training that is the culprit.
What I mean by this is if strong consideration, when one starts to specialize in a sport (around puberty if THEY themselves so desire), was given to training the body as a whole, taking into account all muscle groups that provide, support and protect body movement, would we still see the issues (injuries) we are seeing.
Basically would conditioning both agonist and antagonistic muscle groups (muscle groups on both sides of a joint that provide movement for that joint) and training the complete kinetic chain (the sequence of events from beginning to end of movement) decrease the risk of injury even though an athlete is specializing?
Stay tuned for Part II as I take the discussion a step further, and then bring in Sports Podiatrist Dr. Robert A. Weil's thoughts on the topic of sports specialization through his recent piece Young athletes specialize in one sport or many - good question.