Sports Injuries

Updated 20 March 2017

Greater injury risk when kids play just one sport

Variety is good for children who play sports, and researchers recommend that kids under 12 shouldn't specialise in just one kind of sport.


South Africans are extremely passionate about sport, with soccer being the most popular, and rugby and cricket following close on its heels. 

Children all over the world start playing sport at an early age, but according to researchers focusing too much on playing one favourite sport probably isn't a good idea for kids under 12.

That's because specialising in a single sport seems to increase a child's risk of injury, researchers say.

This is a matter of concern in South Africa – given the popularity of contact sports like rugby – because of sports injuries such as concussions becoming more prevalent globally.

"Young athletes should participate in one competitive sport per season, and take at least three months off (non-consecutive) from competition per year," said the study's leader, Dr Neeru Jayanthi. He's a physician with Emory Sports Medicine and an associate professor of orthopaedics and family medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

High prevalence of sport injuries 

For the study, Jayanthi's team assessed the risk of sports-related injuries among nearly 1 200 young athletes. After tracking their training schedules over the course of three years, the investigators found that nearly 40% of the athletes suffered an injury during the study period.

The findings also showed that injured athletes began specialising in one sport at an average age younger than 12 years. In addition, nearly two-thirds of these athletes in highly specialised sports sustained a repeat injury.

Athletes who didn't sustain injuries began to focus on one sport when they were older than 12, on average, according to the report.

Choose sport specialisation wisely 

"While different for each sport, determining a possible age of specialisation, as well as other training factors, may help guide young athletes in reducing risk," Jayanthi said in an Emory news release.

Young athletes who had sports-related injuries during the study period tended to play more year-round sports, played more organised sports each week and were more specialised in specific sports than those who didn't have an injury, the researchers found.

The study authors advise young athletes to play more than one sport. In addition, they said, younger children shouldn't train more hours than their age each week.

The study was published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The findings were also presented at the International Olympic Committee World Conference on Prevention of Injury and Illness in Sport, in Monaco.

Better safe than sorry

According to the US National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA), parents should also help ensure their teens are both mentally and physically prepared to play sports. This includes a preseason physical to identify any health conditions that could limit their participation. Young athletes shouldn't be pushed or forced to participate.

"It's important to have the right sports safety protocols in place to ensure the health and welfare of student athletes," said Larry Cooper, chairman of NATA's secondary school committee, in a previous Health24 article. "By properly preparing for practices and competitions, young athletes can excel on the field and stay off the sidelines with potential injuries."

Read More:

Concussion in kids may lead to long-term problems

Concussion rates have doubled among US kids

5 myths about sport concussion


Ask the Expert

Sports Injuries Expert

Adrian Rotunno is a medical doctor in the Sports & Exercise Medicine fellowship at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and qualified physiotherapist. Team physician for Dimension Data pro-cycling, and Boland Rugby. Special interests include endurance sport, in particular cycling, as well as contact sports.

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