Too Much of a Good Thing - Single Sports Injuries

sports injuryFor the nation’s top high school quarterback recruits, Jim Harbaugh, head coach for the Michigan Wolverines, has some eye-opeing advice: play soccer1. At a time when top student athletes are specializing more than ever, with year-round focus on a single sport, Harbaugh’s suggestion seems entirely counter-intuitive. The former NFL player and coach, however, knows firsthand the benefits of cross-training and has made it a regular part of his recruiting camps, along with running obstacle courses in a bouncy castle and playing dodgeball.

The benefits of cross-training go far beyond skill acquisition. Leading sports medicine specialists recognize its importance to avoiding single-sport injuries and burnout. With more pressure to compete for athletic scholarships and the availability of year-round practice facilities, it’s not surprising that single-sport overuse injuries have increased 10-fold since 2000.

The risk of single-sport injuries is so undeniable that talent scouts from Major League Baseball actively avoid hotter climates for new pitchers because they know student athletes from colder states are forced to take a break from throwing in the winter, giving their arms a much-needed rest and recovery period. A similar issue has been well documented with gymnasts, who can suffer not only wrist pain when training more than 24 hours per week, but can even damage their growth plates, stunting their growth. “Many people only think of the highly specialized athletes like pitchers when they think of single-sport injuries,” notes Jonathan Hirsch, PA-C orthopedic sports medicine specialist at BCOS. “The reality is that it’s a major issue for all student athletes who are highly focused on a single-sport, whether it’s baseball, gymnastics, football, lacrosse, or even dance and cheer.” Indeed, single-sport injuries are generally more of an issue for female athletes, given certain physiological differences (such as skeletal structure, muscle development, and hormonal impact), as well as common training and nutritional differences.

Strategies to Prevent Single-Sport Injuries

Given the significant risks to student athletes, and especially to younger players, here are some proven strategies to help prevent single-sport and overuse injuries:

  1. Cross-Training – during the season but especially in the off-season. This allows the body to use different muscles and develop different brain muscle pathways
  2. Strength and Conditioning – especially core strength and flexibility. Important to improve stability, reduce the risk of muscle fatigue. Especially important to remember for girls who may try to avoid in order to prevent “bulking up.”
  3. Proper Nutrition – In order for the body to function at its peak, it must be properly nourished and hydrated. Failure to do so creates an energy deficit which will greatly limit performance. This is especially true for menstruating female athletes.
  4. Maximum Weekly Hours – The recommended rule of thumb is that the number of hours per week in active training/performance should not exceed the student athlete’s age.
  5. Report Pain – Players must never “play through the pain.” Too often pain is ignored as something minor and becomes dramatically worse with continued play, resulting in much more serious injury.
  6. Watch for Growth Spurts – For student athletes going through puberty, growth spurts can dramatically affect a player’s strength, balance, and coordination. Caution is needed during these periods of rapid change to avoid injury until their bodies can settle into their new stature.
  7. Parents and Coaches – Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon parents and coaches make sure the student athlete’s schedule is appropriate on a weekly and year-round basis. A recent study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found that 54.7% of parents encourage their kids to focus on a single-sport. Prevention of these injuries will require parents to take an active role in helping their children to set appropriate goals and support them with a healthy training and playing schedule.

What to Look Out For

Even with the best training regimen, overuse injuries can still happen. Parents can help their student athletes stay healthy by looking out for these telltale signs and symptoms:

  • Pain – as noted above, pain should never be ignored, and any signs of pain should be immediately evaluated by a sports medicine professional
  • Noticeable Changes – decrease in endurance or performance, or unexpected deterioration in accuracy, form, or technique are often signs of overuse, fatigue, and injury
  • Loss of Interest – or signs of burn out or depression are often a likely indicator that the sport schedule is unhealthy

Specialized Treatment for Single-Sport Injuries

Bucks County Orthopedic Specialists can address any injuries your children might suffer or concerns you may have about focusing on a single sport or intense conditioning regimens. A former professional basketball player and now a youth coach for soccer, basketball, and baseball, Jonathan Hirsch, PA-C is an orthopedic sports medicine specialist who has unique insights into the needs of the student athlete. “Families really appreciate that I am, first and foremost, focused on their health and safety, but that I also understand the intense competitive drive and desire to be the best and to get back onto the playing field,” says Hirsch. “It’s a bit of a juggling act, but in the end, our goal is always to help the student athlete perform at the highest level they can achieve, in the best and healthiest condition possible.” If you would like to know how our team can help keep them doing what they love, please call (215) 600-4714 or fill out an online contact form now.

1 “Jim Harbaugh’s Advice to Football Recruits: Play Soccer,” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2017
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