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SportsLife: The trend toward specialization

The trend of young athletes playing one sport year-round has early benefits but long-term consequences, according to experts like Dr. Heather Bergeson.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — SportsLife is a recurring blog examining issues that impact young athletes, their families, officials and the greater community. Topics come from YOU: email them to news@kare11.com with SportsLife in the topic line. You can also text them to 763-797-7214. Remember to text, don't call.

 

Minnesota prides itself on being the state of hockey, where puck is played inside arenas and on outdoor ponds across the state's frozen winter landscape. Home-grown skaters populate the rosters of college and junior programs across the U.S. and Canada, with some even rising to the ranks of the NHL. 

It's the stuff that dreams are made of.

Still, it used to be that when the season ended, young athletes put their skates and sticks in the closet and grabbed a baseball bat or soccer ball in exchange, a transition that doesn't happen nearly as often anymore. 

That's because many kids who play hockey now do it year-round. When the winter season ends with their community-based traveling team, skaters transition to summer AAA programs, complete with specialty instructors, off-ice trainers and an itinerary of weekend tourneys that involve hotel rooms, restaurant meals and plenty of gas burned in the family truckster. 

The sport of hockey doesn't have a corner on the market, either: Kids who play soccer, basketball, volleyball and other sports are increasingly doing it year around. 

Dr. Heather Bergeson knows the drill. She's experienced it both through patients she sees as a pediatric sports medicine specialist, and as a parent whose kids navigated the world of competitive youth athletics.  

"What I was seeing was a lot of overuse injuries, and a lot of burned-out kids, a lot of stressed out parents spending a lot of money on something," Bergeson recalls of her years as a sports parent. "Then the question was why, what are we doing, when it seems like we’re having the trend towards specialization and year-round play, and for what? It doesn’t seem like it’s doing anybody any good. And so that’s how I got involved in advocating for a bit more… normalcy… and sports sampling."

Early benefits, long-term concerns

Dr. Bergeson has become a passionate voice of concern when it comes to the practice of sports specialization for kids who are younger than 13. She says schedules stacked with long hours of practice, multiple games or competitions each week and additional specialty skill training can wear on both a young athlete's body and their love for the sport. 

It doesn't matter whether it's hockey, soccer, basketball or gymnastics.... too much is... well, too much. 

"Early on, when kids are specializing, kids get better faster. They do. But it eventually equalizes, and it’s those kids that really have that athletic prowess, ability, genetic endowment and family social factors that are playing more of a role in their success (that excel)," Bergeson says. "And so early on, these kids, the more they play the better they get, but also the more overuse injuries they get, the more burned out they get, and then we end up with the state we’re in now."

Young athletes who come to see her at Tria Orthopedics are experiencing a variety of ailments, including many that involve growth plates where the body is attempting to lay down new bone as kids grow. Dr. Bergeson says diagnoses range from stress fractures and reactions to diseases like Sever's and Osgood-Schlatter, which involve rapidly-growing bones, muscle and tendons.

While identifying physical ailments is a more concrete process helped by X-rays and MRIs, diagnosing a child experiencing sports burnout is a trickier prospect. Bergeson explains that burnout symptoms can look different among kids, things like joint pain, stomach aches, nausea and poor performance at school. 

"A lot of the time they don’t have the insight yet to see what this is, they’re still trying to please, trying to please a coach, parents, teammates, so you really have to watch for those signs and think “what’s happening here.” 

Outside pressure and parents 

That outside pressure can start with the best intentions, often with parents who want their kids in the top programs, or peers who want to play on the same "A" traveling team as their friends. That morphs into the long-shot dream of a college athletic scholarship, or even more unlikely – a money-making career in professional sports. 

"I think as parents, we’re really trying to do everything we can to advocate for our kids, and aspirational society and culture and just kind of a fear of missing out, we just want the best for our kids... but you start just following the masses and jumping off the cliff with everyone else and not wanting them to miss out," Bergeson maintains. "It’s true, if they’re not playing on that team and not playing on that team year around and they go for tryouts that season, their skills aren’t up to speed and they don’t make the best team or maybe have better coaches, and better competition... so you can see why it happens."

Sports sampling

Dr. Bergeson says there are children who are intrinsically motivated to compete and improve, and it's up to parents (and coaches) to slow things down and encourage other sports and interests. She cites a study that found a good way to reduce "overuse" injuries is to limit hours of practice or play each week to the age of the athlete. For instance, a soccer player who is 10 years old shouldn't put more than 10 weekly hours into their chosen sport. 

Sports sampling is another way to break the confines of specialization. Bergeson says signing up for the sport of the season:

  • Reduces over-use injuries
  • Guards against burnout
  • Exposes kids to new peers, coaches and mentors
  • Makes them excited to get back to their "chosen sport" 

COVID as the reset button? Not so much

The COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on all kinds of things, including youth sports. Dr. Bergeson thought that shutting down or significantly limiting practices, games and training might offer an opportunity to stand down, and refocus on what youth sports are really all about.  

In fact, Bergeson says researchers conducted a study that asked kids during COVID if they were anxious to get back to competitive sports and 30% said no. But the rollback of pandemic restrictions and resumption of play have things right back where they were, if not even more intense due to missed development time and opportunity. 

So what's the solution? Bergeson points to the fact that most of the athletes she deals with as a team physician for the U of M Golden Gophers did not specialize in their sport until the age of 15 or 16, lending credence to the idea that you don't have to start young to excel. Ultimately, she admits that getting everyone - coaches, parents, and young athletes themselves - to jump off the single-sport carousel at the same time is unlikely, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. 

"I’d love to tell ya I have the answers on how to fix it, or how to make it better, but I do think at some point it has to be a collective approach, and a top down, from professional and collegiate level to grassroots level," Bergeson says, "Really making sure we’re creating a positive environment."

"Just let kids be kids… I think is the right answer. Let em' have fun, 'the 3 Fs' - fun, fitness and friends, that’s really what it needs to be about. The skills will come, but more importantly, the life lessons are going to experienced, and that’s what the whole point of this is."

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