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Why kids should be more than one-sport athletes

Young boy wears blue baseball uniform and holds bat over the plate while looking at the mound.

When we’re talking about student-athletes, there’s typically two camps of thinking. One camp thinks kids need to become experts in their chosen sport. This group thinks excelling in the sport requires practicing every day and playing year-round on both summer leagues and on school teams. While that may help perfect a kid’s skills and get noticed by scouts, I’m firmly in the other camp of having kids play in multiple sports, time for free play and having an offseason.

Chance for injury

Simply put, being a one-sport athlete as a child or teen is potentially dangerous. Activity is healthy and staying active is one of the best things for kids. But a young athlete’s body is still growing. When kids commit to one athletic activity without rest, it can cause overuse injuries.

Think about what it takes for the body to do that sport. A baseball pitcher winds up and thrusts the baseball over the mound. A gymnast lands hard with every dismount. A swimmer pulls an arm over the water to have a power stroke. Repeatedly putting the same body parts at stress, without rest, can affect muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones and growth plates. All these parts are still developing in children and overuse can cause pain.

Overuse injuries

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in overuse injuries in our Sports Medicine Center. We’re seeing injuries like:

  • Sever’s Disease - an inflammatory condition of the growth plate in the heel caused by running, jumping, and being active lead to repetitive stress on the growth plate as the foot strikes the ground. This results in inflammation or swelling in the growth plate which causes heel pain.
  • Osgood-Schlatter Disease - inflammation of the growth plate near the top of the tibia leads to pain at the front of the knee. Painful symptoms are often brought on by running, jumping and other sports-related activities.
  • Jumper’s Knee - pain that occurs in the lower portion of the kneecap. This type of injury commonly occurs in jumping sports, such as basketball and volleyball, but it has been seen in almost any sport.
  • Little Leaguer’s Elbow - pain at the bony bump on the inside of the elbow caused by repetitive overhand throwing, as seen with pitching in baseball. Although throwing injuries in the elbow most commonly occur in pitchers, they can be seen in any athlete who participates in repetitive overhand throwing.
  • Stress Fractures - muscles become fatigued and transfer the overload of stress to bones causing the bone to fail and a small crack develops that causes pain. This can occur anywhere in the body, including feet, shins and back.

As a parent, or child who loves the sport and wants to excel in it, pulling back from a dream or commitment can be a hard thing to consider. The pressure to compete and the hope to play at the next level can be enormous. There are some ways to help kids avoid injuries so they can have a lifetime of healthy activity.

Ways to avoid overuse

While there is no singular way to prevent injuries, here are some ways to avoid overuse caused by only playing one sport.

  • Limit the number of teams your athlete plays on during a sport season to one.
  • Do not allow your athlete to play only one sport year-round.
  • Take breaks from each sport and play other sports.
  • Limit the number of hours in the gym, field or competition to match their age. For example, a 12-year-old should participate in no more than 12 hours of activities in a week.
  • Do not allow your child to play if there is pain and get evaluated by a physician.
  • Do not let your child play if tired or fatigued.
  • Stay under sport limits, like pitch counts.

I love to see pro athletes who came from multi-sport backgrounds. Kansas City Chief’s quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, played baseball and basketball in high school before committing to football full-time in college. He’s even attributed his powerful throwing arm in football to his time spent on the baseball field. Kansas City National Women’s Soccer League’s Nicole Barnhart played basketball and lacrosse before committing to soccer full-time in college, becoming an All-American and winning multiple Olympic gold medals. Both athletes are successful today and play at a professional level. They developed other skills when they were young by being more than a one-sport athlete and avoiding overuse.  

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Sports Medicine, Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgery

Sports Medicine; Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine