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What Parents Should Know about Single-Sport Focus and How it May Impact Your Child

As just about any parent today can tell you, the world of youth sports looks a lot different than it did a generation ago. Young children – boys and girls alike – are signing up in droves for team sports like soccer, basketball and lacrosse. Increasingly, these young athletes are being encouraged to commit to a club sport, meaning they may be training in a single sport as many as five days a week.

This shift towards more physical activity is a positive one in the eyes of many health experts. But from the perspective of orthopedic specialists, the trend towards a single-sport focus raises concerns. Many physicians have seen a sharp increase in the number of injuries they’re treating in young athletes.

Gregory Palutsis, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine at IBJI, is one of those physicians. “Over the last 25 years or so, we’ve flipped the way that young people experience team sports,” explains Dr. Palutsis. “Where we used to see kids playing soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and perhaps baseball in the spring, we’re now seeing large numbers of kids committing to a single sport at a very early age. And that decision can be detrimental to their health,” says Dr. Palutsis.

“With such an intense focus on training for just one type of sport, kids today are increasing their exposure to injury,” explains Dr. Palutsis. “The most common injury we see is from overuse. These young players are being treated for soreness, inflammation of joints and tendons, and tearing of tissue. We’re treating a lot of overuse injuries in shoulders and elbows, especially. We’re also seeing tendonitis occurring in very young patients, particularly in the knees.” At the same time, according to Dr. Palutsis and his colleagues at IBJI, ACL tears are on the rise among children, especially girls.

“There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that single-sport training often backfires and can actually keep children from meeting their athletic goals,” says Dr. Palutsis. “In our practice, we see this play out nearly every day. Kids are over-training certain muscles and joints. They are increasing wear and tear on joints that are still growing. And they are paying a physical price for that.”

Dr. Palutsis wants parents to understand that there can be serious and long-term consequences for their children, especially with an injury like an ACL tear. “I’m a parent of four children myself, all of whom played competitive sports. Thankfully, none of them suffered a serious injury, but it is happening far more frequently in today’s single-sport environment”

One of the best things a parent can do is to encourage their child to participate in different sports throughout the year. “Striking the right balance of activities is absolutely critical. We want parents of kids who are engaged in club sports to talk with their physicians about this. Doctors can help families understand how to help a child stay competitive in a given sport. At the same time, they can provide recommendations and guidance about the importance of diversifying a child’s physical activities to keep him or her safer. Overall, this approach will produce a better athlete. Their child will have better coordination. The whole body will be better trained. And he or she will be less likely to suffer an injury that could affect physical development and might have lifelong consequences,” explains Dr. Palutsis.

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