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Diversification versus Specialization: Sports in Adolescence and Earlier

By Taylor Lee, DPT

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As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I have seen countless patients come through the doors of Maven with sports-related injuries.  

More often than I would like, I’ve had to treat children under the age of 12 with overuse and traumatic sports injuries in need of rehabilitative care.  

In the past, I have often questioned both parent and child if it was worth devoting so much time, energy, and money to a sport.  The parent and/or child often had the same concerns; however, they felt it was necessary for them to keep up in order to excel at the sport.  Essentially, parents and players associated volume of play and practice time to performance enhancement.  

Even pro athletes have an off season. Why do we not ensure our children have one as well?  Periods of rest are important, if not essential.  Recovery is necessary to prevent overuse and even traumatic sports injuries.  Aside from the age and maturation stage as a differentiating factor between children and pro athletes, our children may not be getting sufficient nutrition, sleep, and training to counteract effects of overuse. 

Contrary to most misconceptions, science says diversified sports participation helps kids to be more successful at sports and experience more enjoyment in the long-term.  Non-specialization in a sport at an early age can significantly reduce the likelihood of incurring injuries.  Laying down a solid foundation of sports understanding and skill may be of much higher importance at the younger ages of childhood than an overemphasis on specialized skill/performance development in a specific sport.  

Most importantly, as parents we should always seek the feedback of our children and ensure they are happy while encouraging them to pursue their activities with excellence and effort.  

To divert the focus just a bit, maybe our efforts as parents (and educators, health care providers, coaches, et al) should not be aligned so much with striving toward that elusive college scholarship or elite athlete status, but should instead be focused on achieving optimal physical health early in life, that it might help us later in life.

Consider: the process of biological aging remains a somewhat mysterious one in that we do not exactly know what processes are mutable or altogether avoidable. Wouldn’t it be great if things we did in our youth could help us alter the impact of aging as adults?

Data from a study of exceptional athletes in their twenties, then forty years later, and again 45 years later suggests that while people decline after they stop training at their former athletic “heights,” strong athletic work as a youngster might serve to blunt the losses as we age and keep us considerably healthier than we might otherwise be.  In other words, a strong focus on developing fitness fundamentals in our youth has long term benefits for our overall health as we age.

 The lesson is a significant one for me: sports for kids is not so much about the win, the status, or the scholarship, but the implications for health. As fall and back to school opens with football season, volleyball games, and cross-country meets, let’s drive that message home.

Taylor LeeComment