Weighing the risks and benefits of playing a single sport

Do you have a child or teen that shines in one sport over all others? If your first thought is to encourage him or her to specialize in that sport, you might increase the chance of your athlete getting hurt. A 2017 study published by The American Journal of Sports Medicine shows that athletes are more likely to sustain a lower extremity injury when they play a single sport year-round.

Bayhealth Athletic Trainer Taylor Hatfield, ATC, says that all sports involve a repetitive motion. As the athlete goes through those motions it can cause stress that can build up over time and cause overuse injuries. When an athlete plays different sports, stress is limited over a shorter period. For example, a softball pitcher can rest her shoulder and arm for the spring season by playing soccer over the summer.

As the Head Athletic Trainer at Milford High School, Hatfield has seen her fair share of injuries from overuse of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. For those athletes who insist on specializing in one sport, Hatfield recommends getting rest, allowing the body to recover after practice, stretching, hydrating, fueling, and getting ready for the next day. This means athletes shouldn’t do extra reps in the weight room or go for a two-mile run following practice or a game.

“Athletes need time to allow their bodies to recover,” said Hatfield. “Often, they will go an entire season without taking any time for rest even when they have muscle aches and pains. Ignoring these signs of discomfort can put the athletes at risk. It’s important for single-sport athletes to take at least two months off from their sport to adequately recover.”

Hatfield, who participated in soccer, field hockey, karate, and softball, says there are many benefits to playing multiple sports. “Athletes will be exposed to new environments, be a part of different team dynamics, train numerous parts of the body to be a more versatile player, develop new hand-eye coordination patterns, train their muscles in different ways, and keep them from the boredom that can come with playing one sport,” said Hatfield.

No matter if your child is a single- or multi-sport athlete, Hatfield says cross-training can help activate muscles in different ways. “Cross-training is a type of exercise regimen that uses several types of training to develop a specific component of fitness,” she explained. “Cross-training spreads the stress over additional muscles and joints. Athletes are able to exercise more frequently, for longer durations, and without repetitive stress to one part of the body.”

For mental health and to deter burnout, Hatfield suggests that athletes also need to rest their minds by learning to cook, fishing, helping in the yard, weight lifting, reading a book, or finding a different downtime activity. “Whatever the activity, it needs to be enjoyable,” she said. Hatfield’s final bit of advice to athletes is to stay hydrated, stretch more than you think you need to, have rest days, and don’t wait until the pre-season to get in shape. “Listen to and take care of your body,” said Hatfield. “One injury can change the trajectory of your ‘sports picture’ as it did mine.”

When injuries strike, Bayhealth Sports Medicine Therapy offers therapy services to get athletes back in the game. Visit to see how we can help you recover.

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