To your health: Playing multiple sports beneficial in physical development

By Alfred Casale - To Your Health | November 7th, 2017 6:00 am

Years ago, it seemed like a good idea to have my diplomas laminated to wood plaques for display. They did look good hanging like that for a while, but when we moved to Pennsylvania 16 years ago, they wound up in a box in the basement.

Recently, I needed to make a copy of my med school diploma, so I found myself rummaging through the basement. Among the treasures I stumbled upon there was Kate’s high school lacrosse and field hockey goalie equipment. I pulled it out and someday soon will cart it off to her new house in the Chicago suburbs. It did give me a chance to reflect on those exciting afternoons watching the Kent Place School teams compete. For parents of student-athletes, there’s one word from the announcers that makes their hearts swell with pride.


Unless your kid’s the goalie, then it’s the screams of “Great block!”

Sports can foster physical and mental growth in children, and seeing your child succeed in sports is a great feeling.

However, due to the increasingly competitive nature of high school sports, some parents enroll kids in multiple teams or use private trainers so their kids can play one sport year-round. While single sport specialization sounds like a good way to increase your child’s skills, it may do more harm than good in the long run.

Sport specialization has been a trend in the last few years that aligns with the increasing competition in teen sports. The problem with specialization is that your teen might overuse certain muscles, which can cause injuries. Your child should take at least one season off from their main sport every year and be sure to rest at least one day every week.

Overuse injuries

Sports-related injuries, especially minor ones, are very common. But kids who play a sport year-round are at risk for long-term overuse injuries.

Overuse injuries are conditions like tennis elbow, Osgood-Schlatter disease, shin splints and swimmer’s shoulder. These conditions come from overexertion and not giving yourself enough time to recover. Most people think that to train for a sport, you have to practice all the time. Rest and recovery are key parts of a proper training regimen.

Overuse injuries come from damage to tendons, ligaments and muscles. Repetitive motions like swinging a tennis racket can cause stress on certain tendons, which can lead to damage and inflammation. The best way to treat these injuries is with rest and recovery, but if the condition is too severe, it may require surgery to correct.

Part of the reason that overuse injuries are common in teenagers is that they’re still growing. Excessive and repetitive use of muscles and joints during growth spurts can cause serious, sometimes permanent, damage. As a general rule of thumb, teens shouldn’t practice more hours than their age — if they’re 13, they shouldn’t practice more than 13 hours a week.

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that teens refrain from specializing in one sport until they’re at least 15 years old.

If your child is showing symptoms of an overuse injury, ask them to stop playing and see your pediatrician.

Why your teen should play multiple sports

Consider this: In college, it’s not uncommon to be a multi-sport athlete. In fact, some of the best athletes play more than one sport.

In a recent survey of NCAA athletes:

  • 71 percent of Division I men’s football players were multi-sport athletes
  • 88 percent of Division I men’s and 83 percent of women’s lacrosse players played other sports
  • 87 percent of Division I female runners and 91 percent of male runners were active in another sport

If your teens concentrate only on one set of muscles, they’re setting themselves up for possible injury before their muscles are even fully developed. For these muscles to grow, they need time to recover, and repeated use and abuse will cause long-term harm. By playing multiple sports, especially ones that are very different, teens can develop different muscle groups, which can help support the existing ones.

Obviously, avoiding a career-ending injury as a teen is a huge benefit to playing more than one sport. Another benefit of being a multi-sport athlete is the transfer of skills between sports. For a basketball player, swimming would be a good complementary sport — strengthening the legs will help with jumping.

However, in some instances, teams will discourage athletes from joining other sports. There are coaches who will ask teens to sign contracts saying they won’t play any other sports. This can be harmful to your child, so it’s best to talk with the coaches and address your concerns.

I’m sure Kate and Andy will resent me cleaning out my basement to fill theirs, but I am glad Kate mixed it up when it came to playing high school sports.

Alfred Casale To Your Health Casale To Your Health

By Alfred Casale

To Your Health

Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]