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At least once a month, a teenager comes into the office complaining of chronic joint pain after strenuous activity. 

The most recent example was a 12-year-old boy who’d showed up for his sports physical. He had chronic ankle pain severe enough to warrant evaluation by orthopedics and treatment with physical therapy. The boy was told to refrain from competitive sports until his pain resolved, though he already had returned to football camp by the time I saw him.

He, like many other athletes his age, was suffering from an overuse injury from excessive participation in competitive sports. This repeated stress can impact growing bones, ligaments and joints, causing stress fractures, weakened joints from excessive tears and conditions such as Osgood-Schlatter disease – one of the most common overuse injuries of the knee, seen frequently in adolescents.

Studies investigating these types of injuries have found that they seem to occur more often when student-athletes limit themselves to one sport, a practice known as sports specialization. While most kids play different sports throughout the year, some specialize in a single sport starting at a young age. By limiting themselves to only one sport, they increase the risk of injuries or burnout and of an early dropout from sports.

Several studies in the past few years showed the detriment of sports specialization. Working too hard to compete in one sport, especially before puberty, can lead to both psychological and physical stress. Early specialization can lead to mental burnout and an early dropout from sports that kids may have previously enjoyed. Many of these young athletes get bored with their single sport or feel too much pressure from coaches or parents. 

Physical injuries can occur from over-stressing developing bones, joints and muscles. This occurs most often during periods of growth spurts when the rapidly growing bones are less flexible and more easily injured. Overuse injuries happen when athletes perform the same motion repeatedly for long periods of time. This is much more likely in athletes that stick with the same sport throughout the year. Multi-sport athletes work different muscle groups in each sport, protecting them from these overuse injuries.

Parents encourage single-sport specialization because they think it will improve their child’s chances of success, a college scholarship or even a future in professional sports. However, many college coaches look for multi-sport athletes because they know these young athletes are more well-rounded. Also, an athlete’s sports IQ increases as he or she is exposed to different sports and gains different skills, leading to better motor and athletic development. Some sports emphasize agility while others focus on strength or hand-eye coordination; the best athlete gains all these different skills.  

While there are some sports, such as gymnastics or hockey, that require earlier introduction, sports professionals and physicians agree that the multi-sport approach is best for young children and adolescents. Therefore, the best way to help your student-athlete is to encourage them to participate in multiple sports, rather than focusing on only one.

Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma. 

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