Single-sport kids feeling the strain of specialization, experts say

A growing body of research suggests early sports specialization — spending eight months or more a year playing a single sport — can do young athletes more physical harm than good.

Medical evidence shows kids who play one sport year-round are at greater risk of injury

Experts say young athletes are at greater risk of injury if they overdo it playing just one sport year-round. (DardaInna/Shutterstock)

In rinks across the country, children are spending their summers perfecting their hockey game. It's an idea pushed by parents and coaches — if children want to reach an elite level, they need to dedicate themselves to one sport.

But research suggests early sports specialization — spending eight months or more a year playing a single sport — can do young athletes more physical harm than good.

Connor Cose, 16, of Ottawa, fell in love with hockey when he was six.

Connor Cose of Ottawa started playing hockey when he was six years old. Within a couple years, he was playing competitively and training year-round. (Susan Cose)

His mom, Susan Cose, said he tried other sports, including soccer, swimming and lacrosse, but all he ever wanted to play was hockey. Within a couple years, Connor was playing competitively, training about six times a week year-round.

"We listened to the scouts saying your child needs to play spring hockey," Susan said. "So we'd go from regular season straight into spring. You'd have maybe a couple weeks, then you do a camp. It starts very quick and you have no downtime."

In 2016, the lack of downtime may have caught up to Connor, who felt his hip "pop" during a game. Doctors diagnosed him with a repetitive strain injury and pointed the finger at years of unvaried training.

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At just 14, Connor struggled to walk up the stairs and needed surgery. Doctors told him to hang up his skates — his hockey career was likely done.

"It was hard learning that maybe playing hockey wasn't something I'd be able to do or continue to do," he said.  

Too much strain leads to injury

Dr. Sasha Carsen, a pediatric surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, said the number of pediatric sports injuries like Connor's have "exploded" in recent years as more children get involved in competitive sport at a younger age.

He said kids who specialize in a single sport are exposing their growing joints, bones and soft tissues to repeated stresses.

Dr. Sasha Carsen, a pediatric surgeon at Ottawa's Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says the number of pediatric sports injuries have 'exploded' in recent years. (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario)

Carsen said this strain on a young body can cause damage to skeletal development, particularly if the child isn't getting enough rest.

"Not having the opportunity to use other muscles and other elements of the body, and above and beyond that, not having the opportunity for the body to rest from the sport means a lot," he said. "Especially during the developmental years."

Carsen said the best way to minimize injury is to expose children to a variety of activities that develop various skill sets and different parts of their body.

"There are limited-to-no benefits to early sports specialization," he said. "But there are great benefits to be had from diversity of physical activity and diversity of sports involvement."

Joe Baker, a professor of sport science at York University, said the benefits of playing multiple sports aren't just physical.

"There's lots of evidence that broad, varied involvement leads to better outcomes, like creativity, more happiness, more enjoyment," he said.

A 2013 study published in Sports Health appears to back him up. It found that sampling a variety of sports during early childhood, and delaying specialization until adolescence, can result in less stress and more enjoyment, and reduce the risk of physical injuries and burnout.

Where do we go from here?

Carsen said he advises parents to ask themselves questions about their child's involvement in competitive sport to ensure their participation is healthy.

He said two good questions to start with are, "Does my child have enough time to rest from their physical activity?" And "How much time is my child committing to a specific sport or physical activity every year?"

Cose, 16, says he has no regrets about the way his minor hockey career played out. (CBC)

Despite the way things ended, Connor said he has no regrets about committing himself to hockey year-round.

But what about his mom?

"Would I have done things differently? Probably, knowing what consequences Connor's facing now," she said. "He's only 16 and we really don't know what the long-term effects are of all his injuries later on, when he's 50 or 60."