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Sports Specialization

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Kids Health Watch is brought to you by our friends and Children’s Medical Group


It’s hard to believe, but now that we are approaching the beginning of the school year and deciding on extracurricular activities, what’s the best approach to deciding on those activities with the overall health of your child in mind?

Sports are a great way for children to develop unique lifelong skills such as leadership, teamwork, self-esteem, and physical health. Joining a team is fun and is a great asset for children to develop all of the above skills.  But is there a point at which being too involved with a sport can be harmful? “Sports specialization” is a term that generally refers to a situation in which a child focuses on only one sport year-round, and excludes the possibility of participating in other sports.

Studies have shown that early sports specialization can lead to overuse injuries and burnout.  Repetitive movements on young bones and joints can be harmful, and especially so on young children. Most children’s bones and joints are not fully developed until after puberty, which typically occurs in the teenage years. Therefore, the types of injuries that children sustain while participating in sports are very different from those of older teenagers and adults.

With that in mind, what are some good ‘rules’ for deciding on sports activities? A good rule of thumb is diversification, as well as taking at least a three-month break over the course of the year from organized sports.

Picking one sport to play year-round is generally not recommended until around puberty or even after (exceptions being swimming, gymnastics, and figure skating). This gives the body time to mature and helps limit the repetitive movements of a particular sport. It also actually helps an athlete develop a broader range of skills that can help them succeed even more in the sport in which he or she has the most interest. A child who specializes in a sport later in the teenage years actually has a statistically greater likelihood to excel in that sport.

Another good reason to try different athletic pursuits is to avoid burnout. Studies have shown that children who play the same sport repeatedly without any breaks or trying any other sport have a significantly higher rate of burnout. That burnout can lead to quitting sports altogether, or create friction between the child and other children or adults (such as their parents or coaches). Also, when a child joins a different team, he or she gets to learn how to make friends with other children, broaden their social circle, and also become used to different types of instruction from a variety of coaches and mentors. This can lead to improved adaptive skills.

No matter what sport or activity your child chooses or shows initial interest, try to remain flexible.  In the long run, it will likely result in greater athletic success and longevity for your child, and more fun!  

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Dr. Savannah Browning grew up in Fayette, AL. She moved to Mobile to attend Medical School at the University of South Alabama in 2009, and has been a proud Mobilian ever since. She joined Children’s Medical Group in 2016, and her office is at the Airport Boulevard location. She lives in Mobile with her husband, Andrew, and their three children: Jude, Luke, and Annie.

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