The adolescent athletic landscape has changed dramatically in the last 2 decades. Mostly gone are the 3 sport high school athletes, as club teams have risen to prominence and demanded that athletes play one sport year-round. Not to say that clubs are prohibiting young athletes from participating in other sports, but to remain competitive on high school teams, kids are finding themselves almost needing to play for private club teams whose seasons alternate with the high school season. This specialization in one sport is creating more polished players by the time they get to college—and may even earn them a scholarship--but at what cost?
The playing of one sport for 10+ months a year overuses specific muscles and joints. This creates imbalances in developing musculature, painful overuse syndromes, and allows the young athlete little time to recover.
A 10-year study of teenaged pitchers who throw more than 100 innings/year has shown that kids who play baseball year-round are 3 times more likely to end up having elbow or shoulder surgery by the time they are 20 years old, than those that do not play year-round.
I personally recall a young patient who was a great, young volleyball player playing year-round between her club and high school seasons. After winning the Illinois State Championship in volleyball, she had secured a full-ride scholarship to a Big Ten Conference school. However, due to the wear and tear on her body, she required shoulder surgery and also a repair of a ruptured Achilles tendon prior to beginning her college career. And sadly, she never would begin that collegiate career. The injuries sustained while developing into an adult had followed her to early adulthood and kept her from playing in college at all.
But professional athletes play and train year-round, right? Yeah, because they're professional athletes: genetic outliers not in the midst of their bodies' development.
I cannot argue with the logic that if you want your child to succeed in a sport, that they have to have similar access as their competition—even if that means playing a single sport 10+ months out of the year. But there has to be an understanding by the coaches, parents, and young athletes that this will create imbalances in the musculature and potentially lead to injury. To account for this, there must be programs in place to work oppositional muscles to those that are being used regularly in the sport; cross-training can create a more balanced and stronger overall athlete than just focusing on one sport. Adequate rest and recovery periods must be worked in as well, and there has to be healthy communication between high school and club coaches so that there is not a conflict in training schedules/recovery time.
Playing one sport year-round isn't a one-way ticket to the operating room, but you do have to be careful and monitor how your young athlete is feeling at all times. With anything, moderation is key!
If you have questions or concerns regarding sports injuries for youths or adults, email Dr. Stoughton of Evergreen Spine & Sports Medicine at firstname.lastname@example.org