Young Athletes and Families Divided Over the Risks of Sport Overspecialization

Jim Tenopir, executive director, Nebraska School Activities Association and Ron Higdon, assistant director, NSAA, both want to enourage young athletes to play multiple sports. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News).
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May 21, 2018 - 2:03pm

The Nebraska School Activities Association has cautioned parents, coaches and young athletes about the risks of sports specialization based on the number of injuries sustained by repetitive motion.


When parents worry about their teenagers getting hurt, most think about a car, bike or skateboard accident. But not all injuries are caused by a collision, fall or twist. Some injuries occur when young athletes repeat the same motion so many times their young muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones don’t have time to recover.

Single sport athletes are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during their playing season than those who play multiple sports, reported Jim Tenopir, executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA).

Most often, Tenopir said, the culprit is sport specialization.

“Injuries sustained by young people due to those who overuse or repetitive motion type injuries are certainly much greater on students who specialize than those who don’t,” he said.

Tenopir is so concerned about this risk to teenagers that he co-authored an essay with Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, cautioning how injuries can end promising careers, cost families tens of thousands of dollars, squash dreams and literally change lives.

That article was published in the May NSAA newsletter. (This study is the basis of the NSAA article.)

Charles Hillis, Lincoln Southwest High School senior, hits a fairway shot. (Courtesy photo).

Tenopir said he wants to encourage young athletes to play multiple sports to improve their overall conditioning, as well as develop better hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, explosion and agility. These are skills, he said, that can transfer to their primary sport.

“My brother used to be an offensive line coach for Nebraska and they always tried to take a look at those kids who were multi-sport athletes,” Tenopir said.

Chad Maddox, a three-sport school and club coach in York, has witnessed the negative impact sports specialization can have on a child who is over-scheduled with practices and competitions.

“Kids, it wears on them,” Maddox said. “It almost feels like a job when they have to go to school, now they’ve got to go train. That’s the problem: Sometimes the single-sport athlete is almost on a work schedule.”

Maddox said the pressure to perform grows when single-sport athletes choose to train, compete and travel on club teams, which sometimes train year-round. Sometimes young athletes choose to play for a club team instead of their school, but more often club team participation is in addition to their school team.

“You’ll have kids (who) are going to multiple club practices multiple times a week and often not in their towns, so they’re not around family and friends in the community they live in,” Maddox said.

But those arguments haven’t stopped golfer Charles Hillis at Lincoln Southwest High School from doggedly lowering his 18-hole score or swimmer Alex Petty at Lincoln East High School from constantly improving his time in the pool.

Laurie Petty, Alex’s mother, said her son ran both cross country and track at Lux Middle School and then played YMCA flag football his freshman year. Just in the last year Alex chose to limit his competition to swimming. 

Petty said Alex also challenges himself in the classroom, so it was an easy decision when the academic demands of high school began to require more of his time.

“He loves competition, he loves the pool so burnout is not an issue,” she said. “We haven’t had that conversation as a family because it’s not an issue for him.”

Petty said Alex, who will be a senior in the fall, hopes to swim in college. She credits his high school coaches, who are also his club coaches at Lincoln Select Swimming, for keeping him challenged with dry land workouts.

Like Alex Petty, Charles Hillis loves his chosen sport.

Swimmer Alex Petty, Lincoln East senior, has found success balancing sports with high academic standards. (Photo by Hailey Haar).

Hillis said he found his way to golf on a putt-putt course when he was five-years-old. After his father Mike bought him a putter and seven iron, he couldn’t swing the clubs enough. Recently, however, he said he had to figure out a way to enjoy the game again. 

“Last summer I was playing a lot of golf around the Midwest trying to get recognized by a college so I was always focusing on my score,” Hillis explained. “I was just never able to put the round together that I wanted. So after that summer I didn’t even know if I wanted to keep going with golf because I had put in so many hours and days and money and I felt bad for my parents because they were always with me, and I just couldn’t produce it.”

Hillis said he tried to relax and not focus on making every shot perfect. Slowly, his scoring improved along with his attitude.

This fall, Hillis will be a golf team walk-on at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

David “Digger” Hawkins has coached hundreds of soccer players over the years at Gretna Soccer Club. Hawkins said he can relate to the competitive fire that burns inside some athletes.

“You want them to be there as much as they can and you see players that miss too much then you sort of see that the level is not where they could be at,” Hawkins said. “However, I would never tell a kid to quit the sport. It’s their choice and their parents’ choice.”

But Hawkins said he still worries about the adolescents who focus too soon on one sport and may experience burnout too quickly. He says the best way to continue to like your chosen sport and prevent injuries is to take some time off, play some other sports, and try some different activities.

Jim Tenopir co-authored an article for the May Nebraska School Activities Association newsletter advocating for more young athletes to play multiple sports, rather than specialize in one sport. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News).

“I played pro soccer back in England. It’s definitely important for these kids to have some downtime somewhere,” Hawkins said.

Downtime they need to stay healthy, said Tenopir, not just during their high school years, but during their lifetime.

“Also, we have to take a look at are we doing all we can in the best interest of the kids, to provide the health and safety that in later life they’re not going to have some regrets in that regard,” Tenopir said.

Maddox said he places a lot of value in a well-rounded athlete who is successful in his or her sport as well as in the classroom and community.

“A student athlete is going to be busy if they participate in multiple activities, of course, but I just think the benefits outweigh the cons,” Maddox said. “I really feel an athlete is truly the sum of all the things they’ve done.”

Regarding the debate between single sport and multiple sports, for Laurie Petty there’s not one correct pathway that is right for everyone. Petty said she believes that it’s up to each athlete, and his or her family, to find the way that works best for them.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Petty said. “Some athletes prefer the three sports. But I think for Alex it was a very natural transition and something he chose, so we as parents support what he wanted to do.”

But, no matter what activity they’re engaged in, every kid wants a parent to be their biggest fan.

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