Monday Rehab: Early Specialization Edition

I’m taking on the topic of kids only playing one sport today, or what we refer to in the fitness world as early specialization.  This is a subject we deal with every week here in our clinic, but today an interesting subject arose in regards to the ever losing Seattle Mariners.  On of my clients is a former MLB player, so I just had to ask him today:

“Why do the Mariners suck right now and why are so many players injured?”

His response: “Because what we are witnessing now is the first generation of early specialization players who may be in their 20’s, but their bodies have the mileage of a 40 year old athlete.”

Could this be true?  It seems like we talk so much these days in the fitness world about how important it is for kids to play multiple sports and not specialize too soon.  Despite the discussion though, we know that it continues to happen.  This topic of early specialization has only come to the forefront though in the past 8 years, so it is very possible that right now we are seeing an evolution of athletes.  We may even be seeing what could be a decade worth of incredible athletes who will deal with more injuries than we have ever seen before!

Let’s dive into why this could happen first.

When the body repeats the same motion day after day, it enters what is known as a pattern overload.  Golf, pitching, quarterbacks and track athletes are all great examples of this.  In each case, the athletic motion is occurring in one direction repetitively.  Over time, this leads to extreme imbalances throughout the body.  Add this concept to young growing joints and you have a recipe for some problems.

Kids all grow at different rates, and most of the time not evenly.  As they enter a growing phase, on any given day one leg could be longer than the other.  When this happens, it will most likely throw off the timing of a specific athletic motion.  In the golfing world, this means that as an young athlete grows, they will most likely go through some ebs and flows in their golf game.  We’ve seen so many examples in our office of 14 year old boys who go from shooting in the low 70’s to all the sudden scoring much higher.  The immediate response from both parents and golf pros is to change the swing because something must be wrong.  On top of that, the child starts practicing even more and not taking any days to rest.

In most cases the decline in skill has more to do with a growth spurt.  As the feet, hands, arms and legs continue to grow, the athletes coordination has to constantly adapt.  This doesn’t happen overnight, but in the constant search for perfection in athletics, there is an expectation that it can be fixed.  Well I am here to tell you that it can’t.  And hitting balls for hours is not the answer.  In fact, it will more than likely lead to bigger issues.

What does this have to do with all the injured Mariner players?  Chances are many of the professional baseball players in their 20’s could be in this specialization group.  They only played baseball at a young age and did not develop any other fundamental movement skills.  They also may have never been on a training program designed to assist in counteracting the overuse.  Now as professional baseball players, their bodies are so overloaded with one repetitive motion that they are breaking down.

The solution to all this madness?  I wish I could say it was as simple as allowing kids to play multiple sports until they hit puberty.  (This really is the solution!)  Ultimately it has more to do with allowing kids to be kids.  When I was younger we played tag, raced on bikes, played street hockey and challenged ourselves on the monkey bars.  These days, it’s all about organized sports and see you later monkey bars, it’s too risky!  We are so busy protecting kids from everything that could hurt them that they are now missing out on the best parts of being a kid!

It’s great to have them play tons of sports, but what about just letting them run around with their friends?  With the right combo of athletic development and also activities that allow for creativity and independence, the risk of future injury can be drastically reduced.

Hopefully as this topic becomes more and more prevalent, it will only lead to change.  It will be exciting to see the great athletes that will emerge in 10 years.  In the meantime, the implementation of proper training programs will help those athletes struggling with pattern overload to prolong their careers.

I guess we will just have to wait and see!


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