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The Danger of Sports Specialization

Many young athletes dream of earning a scholarship to play their sport of choice at a reputable college or university. To realize that dream, they will often train extensively. Recent research found that hard training while young may lead to significant physical problems later in life.

The study, published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine (2014; 42 [2], 423–29), compared health reports of middle-aged former collegiate Division I athletes with reports pertaining to people who played sports only recreationally while in college. More than 600 subjects, aged 40–65, completed an Internet-based survey that included questions on “sleep, anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain interference, physical function, and satisfaction with participation in social roles.” Of the responses, 457 were considered eligible for the study.

Former Division I athletes reported significantly lower scores than the recreational sports participants on five out of the seven measures. The athletes also reported more difficulty performing activities of daily living and a higher incidence of major chronic injury compared with the other group.

“Sports encourage physical activity, which helps promote a healthy life- style,” the authors noted. “Moderate activity and exercise should be encouraged. However, the demands of Division I athletics may result in injuries that linger into adulthood and possibly make participants incapable of staying active as they age, thereby lowering their health-related quality of life.”

Isaiah Truyman, CEO and marketing director at Ezia Human Performance in Carlsbad, California, believes that an athlete’s long-term health and functionality begin with his or her coaches.

“The basic problem is that coaches/ trainers push young athletes too hard too often for relatively small gains in physical performance, at the expense of their health and wellness later in life,” says Truyman. “Repeated trauma to the nervous, skeletal and muscular system can be hidden in an athlete who is in his or her early 20s, but microtrauma from repetitive stress will accumulate over time and will definitely catch up with an individual later in life, as this research clearly states.”

Truyman believes that coaches and trainers must emphasize the importance of a “slow and steady” approach. “The answer to the problem lies in under- standing training maturity—this usually means having an experienced expert who is as concerned with the athletes’ safety as with temporary improvements. Young people tend not to care how injured they will be later in life as long as they achieve the perceived goal today. It takes a great coach and a scientifically valid training program to say, β€˜Hey, slow down, do it right!’”

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