Hidden injury risks in youth sports

Today’s article is from Dr. Samuel Kinney! Dr. Sam is a Performance Physical Therapist at our McLean location. In addition to being an amazing sports physical therapist and strength coach, Sam was a successful collegiate athlete. Learn more about Dr. Sam here. Enjoy!


What a great time of year to be a physical therapist! Our summer athletes that were injured or training with us are healthy and starting their fall sports seasons.

One of the most rewarding parts of being a sports physical therapist is seeing the athletes I helped return to the field and benefit from all their hard work from the summer.

But I can’t help but be a little nervous sometimes. There is always a risk of injury, and one of the greatest risks for a young athlete is specializing in one sport too early.

Sports specialization is defined as:

“intentional and focused participation in a single sport for most of the year that restricts opportunities for engagement in other sports and activities.”

Many athletes strongly desire to participate in their sport year-round and are pressured to do so. They have been led to believe that this will enhance their athletic success and potential to play “at the next level.” Yet, there is very little data to support this idea. On the contrary, there is strong support in the medical community for athletes to diversify their sporting activities during the off-season.

The main problem with sport specialization at a young age is that it increases an athlete’s risk for an overuse injury, and overuse injuries account for over 50% of injuries in young athletes. Common overuse injuries at CHP include back injuries like spondylolysis, foot and ankle problems, anterior knee pain, and muscle strains. Year-round play of one sport places continued stress through the same joints and tissues without the opportunity to recover.

How can we solve this problem?

First, a well-rounded strength and conditioning program with sport-specific considerations reduces injury risk by increasing the amount of work that the body can handle. As a result, athletes become more resilient to the stresses placed on them in sports. For example, improving the strength and stress-tolerance of a baseball pitcher’s rotator cuff protects against the high forces involved in pitching.

Second, participate in a secondary sport during the off-season of the main sport. This provides a break from the repetitive movements of the primary sport (e.g., repetitive throwing, hitting, jumping) and allows the athlete to explore different movement patterns. This can also improve performance in their primary sport by improving sporting decision-making and problem-solving and giving them a wider range of movements to utilize.

Finally, use the athlete’s age to guide the training load. A simple formula to use is:

Workload hours/week < age.

For example, a 12-year-old athlete should participate in their sport (including practices) less than 12 hours per week.

The topic of injury reduction is complex, and this is just scratching the surface of how we can reduce the risk of injury for youth athletes. If you are looking for ways to reduce the risk of injury for yourself or your child, contact us schedule an evaluation. We will consider all the factors at play and devise an individualized plan to keep you or your child in action!

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