Teens Who Specialize in ‘individual’ Sports Are More Prone to Overuse Injuries

Teen athletes who specialize in individual sports are more prone to overuse injuries

If you started honing your athletic prowess at the tender age of 7, became a young Djokovic or Bolt by the time you were 13, then suffered a total-body breakdown by the time you graduated high school, you’re in good company.

Loads of young athletes who specialize in an “individual” sport from an early age—particularly gymnastics, tennis, and dance—are at higher risk for overuse injuries than young athletes in team sports, according to new research from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

In the clinical case-control study, published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine, researchers recruited 1,190 athletes ages 7–18 from various sports medicine clinics. Researchers compared these adolescents with similarly aged uninjured athletes from primary care clinics after all completed a survey indicating their gender, sport type, and sport-related injuries from the prior six months. For the sake of accuracy, clinical diagnoses were collected from patients’ medical records, after which injuries were classified as acute, overuse, or serious overuse.

Turns out young athletes who engage in an individual sport (like track and field) are more apt to suffer the pain and symptoms of overuse injuries, due to the repetitive nature of their training, as compared to those who focus on a team sport (like basketball). Of the nearly 1,200 athletes, 313 reported participating in a single sport and training in that sport more than eight months out of the year. That said, acute injuries from a single traumatic event are more common in athletes who engage in a team sport, notably football, cheerleading, and soccer.

“Kids in an individual sport usually start specializing at a younger age than those in team sports, and individual sport athletes tend to spend more hours per week training, which might explain why we see a greater proportion of overuse injuries among these athletes,” lead study author Cynthia LaBella, M.D., said in a press release.

Nor is this solely the case in kids. As we age, we engage in team sports less and less, and tend to pick up solo endeavors—like marathons and triathlons—that tax certain joints and muscles, which is why it’s important to cross-train and strategically strengthen the muscles that protect your vulnerabilities.

“Better understanding the relationships between sports specialization and injury risk can help us design more effective injury prevention strategies,” LaBella said. “For example, we know from previous studies that neuromuscular training may help to improve motor skills and performance while decreasing risk for injury among athletes specializing in a single sport.” 

Talk to a physical therapist and/or athletic trainer for prehab moves you can incorporate into your regimen to avoid injury. Here are the warning signs you’re overtraining, as well as 7 ways to avoid it.

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