Local high school trainers agree: Specializing in a sport too early may lead to overuse injuries

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos High tennis player Nadia Ghaffari has played tennis year-round since age 7 but said she allows herself needed recovery time to avoid injuries.

The notion that kids should specialize in one sport at an early age to improve their chances of playing in college or even becoming the next LeBron James seems especially prevalent in Silicon Valley, where many parents have the means to pay for year-round club teams and private coaches.

However, recent research shows that specializing too early may be more harmful than beneficial. Such athletes are more likely to be injured than those who play multiple sports and are especially prone to overuse injuries, according to the medical journal Sports Health.

Los Altos High athletic trainer Lucas Okinawa isn’t surprised by those findings.

“What I feel like I’m seeing is the ones who are hurt the most are the ones who are doing year-round sports,” he said. “They refuse to take a break … and then they’re just dealing with the same nagging injury for four years. ... They’re doing club (too because) their club coaches are, like, ‘Well, if you don’t do it all-year round, then you’re not on the team.’ There’s immense pressure to keep doing the same thing. It’s really disrupting to their bodies, and I get really upset about that.”

Yet several athletes at Los Altos don’t share that view. To many of them, specializing in one sport gives them an advantage over those playing multiple sports.

Los Altos High senior Nadia Ghaffari, who has played tennis since age 7, is among them.

“Parents have a role in this because a 10-year-old can’t really make all the decisions for themselves, but if you look at highly competitive, world-class athletes, they tend to start earlier than 16,” said Ghaffari, a standout singles player. “There’s always a few of them that do start later and are very successful on their career path as an athlete, but especially in tennis, some start as young as 4.”

Although she plays year-round, Ghaffari allows herself needed recovery time that many athletes do not give themselves.

“Playing over a long period of time is what makes you competitive at that high level, but I also think that burnout happens a lot, and it’s a real thing,” she said. “So these athletes that train a lot, they have to have days off and recovery time and a whole mix of that type of relaxation into their schedule … or other activities that work different parts of (their) bodies.”

Cautionary tales of talented athletes becoming injured after specializing in a single sport may seem intangible for most high school athletes, but they are not uncommon. According to Okinawa, sports specialization “leads to more injury because of the repeated motion.”

Mountain View High athletic trainer Achilles Walker agrees and cautioned that parents need to closely monitor kids who specialize at a young age.

“Just keep in mind that they are little kids and their bodies are still developing, and we have to be aware of that,” he said. “Whether they specialize or not, as long as they have a balance, the kids will be fine.”

Not even LeBron James was a single-sport athlete growing up. The NBA superstar played football through his junior year of high school.

“The more people you can convince to just stop sticking with the one sport, the better,” Okinawa said. “It’ll also make my job easier, because my whole philosophy is performance through prevention, and a really good way to prevent injury is to not do the same sports.”

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