Kids who play Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, or spend hours at soccer or tennis camps can develop not only a lifetime love of sports, but also life-long injuries if they train too hard before they are fully developed, a new study reveals.
Young athletes who specialize in one sport and train intensively have a significantly higher risk of stress fractures and other severe overuse injuries, according to the clinical study released by the Loyola University Medical Center in suburban Chicago.
It found that young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport – such as a 12-year-old who plays tennis 13 or more hours a week – were 70 percent more likely to get serious overuse injuries of the back, shoulder or elbow, than other injuries.
"We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," Loyola sports medicine physician Dr. Neeru Jayanthi said. He presented his study on Friday at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) meeting in San Diego.
"Young athletes should not spend more hours per week in organized sports than their ages," he said.
Between 2010 and 2013, Jayanthi and colleagues at Loyola and Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago enrolled 1,206 athletes ages 8 to 18, who had physicals or treatment for injuries.
There were 859 total injuries, including 564 overuse injuries, of which 139 were serious stress fractures in the back or limbs, elbow ligament injuries and osteochondral injuries to cartilage and underlying bone.
Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University hailed the study as providing data on the dangers of pressing children to succeed earlier at a particular sport.
“It’s not bad for a kid to start a recreational sport at four, but specializing? We are seeing more ‘Little League pitching elbow’ from repeated exposure,” he said, referring to a common injury in young pitchers trying to throw faster fastballs and curveballs that can distort the arm muscles and joints.
“It’s getting crazy too soon – maybe there’s a race to get athletic scholarships, but there’s a lot of pressure on kids to do year-round sports,” said Gould.
He said there was nothing wrong with a child playing soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter, for example, since it would work different muscle groups and also develop different skills. NBA stars Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, both play soccer too, he noted, and Michael Jordan played baseball as well as basketball.
Lesia Bilak, a former professional tennis player, started playing at age 9 in her native Ukraine. “I started very late, as my first tournament result showed!” she said of a 6-0 6-0 loss when she was 11.
“We started out like little ants, hitting a ball against a wall for maybe two hours a day, three times a week.” By the time she was 11, it was five times a week , said Bilak, who played national tournaments in Ukraine before moving to the United States, where she played at the University of Richmond, before a brief pro career.
“But I never had any injuries. We always did 15 minutes of stretching before practice,” she said. “Here, everyone jumps on the court straight away as their parents are watching.”
Bilak, who coaches tennis in Pennsylvania, has two sons, ages six and four, whom she is teaching the game. But her older boy also plays soccer and swims. “He may not be a tennis star, but he enjoys playing, and we want to make it fun for him. If he was training three hours a day at six, it might turn him off,“ she said.
The Loyola study’s author Jayanthi said kids are more susceptible to stress injuries in the back if they are training too hard and long before their bodies have fully developed.
“The chance of a full recovery can be as low as 25 to 50 percent,” he said. That can then lead to slipped discs and other back problems when they become adults.
The study is not opposed to kids running around and throwing, hitting or kicking balls. But it found that young athletes were more likely to be injured if they spent more than twice as much time playing organized sports than in free play such as pick-up games.