AOA Survey Shows Parents Could be Pushing Kids to Specialize in One Sport Too Early, Putting Them at Risk for Serious Injury
Oct. 28, 2014
Is no pain, no gain the new motto for child athletes? A national survey conducted by the AOA reveals that one-third of parents feel the opportunity for their children to compete in sports at a high level outweighs the risk of serious injury.
There is no mistaking that sports play an important part of growing up in America. Two-thirds of parents surveyed have children ages 5-17 who participate in organized sports or other physical activities. The majority of parents said that sports are for fun only, but one in ten said that sports are “extremely important,” and they do everything they can to make sure their children have a shot at a college scholarship or becoming a professional.
The poll found that nearly two-thirds of child athletes participate in two or more sports, but nearly half are training and competing in one sport year-round. The most popular full-time sports for kids are soccer (22%), followed by basketball (9%) and baseball/softball (8.9%). The survey found that one-sport specialization is happening as early as 8-years-old on average, with the youngest focusing on a single sport as early as age 3.
One-sport specialization at such an early age is alarming to osteopathic physicians like Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Mount Sinai-Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, who has seen a growth in overuse injuries in recent years.
“Overuse is the number one cause of injury I am seeing in my younger patients who play sports,” said Dr. Gotlin. “I am seeing young patients come in with injuries you would expect to see on adults—knee injuries like ACL damage, elbow and back pain. Children are sustaining these types of injuries that you would expect to see on professional athletes. Unfortunately, parents and coaches are treating them like exactly that, young professional athletes.”
About three in ten parents surveyed reported their child had been injured while playing sports. Of those, more than 60% reported at least one injury that required medical treatment. About one-quarter of parents surveyed reported their child had suffered overuse injuries.
Overuse injuries are a key reason why most physicians recommend that children not specialize in one sport until the high-school years, according to R. Robert Franks, DO, an osteopathic family physician affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
“Playing multiple sports is preferred for younger children because it encourages development of different muscle groups and kinetic skills, and reduces the risk of overuse injuries,” says Dr. Franks, a sports medicine specialist. “It’s the responsibility of physicians and coaches to help child athletes avoid injury by counseling families about the risks of high-intensity training, particularly in a single sport or activity.”
Taking a Break
Dr. Gotlin prescribes rest as the primary treatment for overuse injury—something hard to do when playing sports year-round. The survey found that in cases where rest was recommended by a physician, one-third of children were able to return to their sport in less than a week. However, the reality is some young athletes might need a permanent break.
“It can be difficult to convince the parents and child that time away from their sport might be necessary, but they need to understand the risks of long-term damage they could suffer,” said Dr. Gotlin. “For some of these kids, simply taking a break from their sport could save them years of debilitating pain.”
About the Survey
The online survey was conducted from Oct. 13 to Oct. 18, 2014. A total of 1,089 respondents completed the survey, with a margin of error of approximately ± 3.0% at the 95% confidence level.