Rothman study finds young athletes specializing at still younger ages

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University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware writhes in pain after breaking his right leg in 2013 Elite Eight against Duke.

Youth athletes tend to specialize in a single sport at younger ages than college or professional athletes, according to a new study from the Rothman Institute -- a concern because training and competing in one sport in the early years has been linked to a higher risk of injuries.

Michael Ciccotti, the Phillies' head physician and director of sports medicine for Rothman, was colead author of the study, which also found that less than a quarter of the professionals surveyed would want their own offspring to play only one sport in their childhood or teenage years.

“There is a strong, growing sentiment in the sports medicine community in the United States and throughout the world that early sports specialization may increase the rate of injury for young athletes without enhancing their performance," Ciccotti said.

There has been an increasing belief in recent decades that specializing in one sport creates better players. At the same time, multiple studies have found a rising risk of injury for players who specialize early. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine issued a consensus statement last year that took note of both trends.

For the latest study, the researchers surveyed nearly 3,100 high school, collegiate and professional athletes. The professionals were hockey and baseball players, including members of the Phillies and Flyers. The other athletes were in multiple sports. The findings are being presented Tuesday at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ annual meeting in San Diego.

Nearly 68 percent of current college athletes surveyed had specialized in a single sport in their childhood or teenage years. That compared with about 46 percent of the high school players questioned and nearly 50 percent of the pros.

The researchers highlighted their finding that athletes seemed to be specializing earlier — the current high schoolers said they narrowed their training and participation to a single sport about two years earlier than the older groups had. The high schoolers reported that they specialized on average at about 12.5 years of age, compared with 14.8 for collegiate athletes and 14.1 for professionals.

Nearly 40 percent of the high school students and about 42 percent of the collegiate players said they had experienced a sports-related injury, compared with only about 25 percent of the pros who participated.

The younger players were more likely to say they believed that specialization helps athletes play at a higher level — 80 percent of high schoolers and 81 percent of college players had that opinion, compared with 62 percent of the pros.

Moreover, only 22 percent of the professional athletes said they would want their children to play only one sport during childhood or adolescence.

The study’s authors say their results challenge the belief that athletes must specialize at a young age to achieve elite status.

In fact, Ciccotti said, the opposite is true: playing different sports exercises multiple muscle groups and is less likely to cause fatigue in one.

He said the survey findings suggest the need for more study of how young athletes heal.