The One-Sport Athlete

What happens when you focus on one sport only? Take a look at this article about pitching injuries and baseball as a year round sport.

The One-Sport Syndrome
By Warren Hammer, MS, DC, DABCO

I recall that as a kid, I participated in sports based on the season. In spring and summer, it was baseball and basketball; in fall, it was football; and in winter, it was ice hockey. Nowadays, an increasing number of kids focus on one sport at an early age and compete in it year-round. Some even attend special camps to pursue that single sport.

What that means is there is no real time to rest between seasons. The one-sport athlete often plays at a continuous high level, which doesn’t allow adequate time for recovery. Playing a variety of different sports throughout the year is a form of cross-training that is extremely beneficial to a young body’s physical development. Playing multiple sports at different times of the year gives some muscles a chance to rest while different ones are being worked. Today, there is a higher likelihood that the same muscles and joints are being used nonstop, giving them no chance for recovery.

Young athletes need to vary their training just like pros do. All pros have an offseason during which they change their training routine and rest more. They still specialize in one sport, but they adjust their seasonal training to allow complete recovery. No one can go 100 percent in a sport year-round without risking injury or reduced performance.1

According to Dr. James Andrews, he sees four times as many overuse injuries in youth sports now compared to five years ago, and more kids are having surgery for chronic sports injuries. “Complicating the issue with many of these young athletes is their immature bones, poor biomechanics, a lack of knowledgeable coaching, and inadequate conditioning.”2

Table 1: Recommended Pitch Counts by Age

Age                    Max. Number of Pitches (Per Start)
7-8                     50
9-10                   75
11-12                 285
13-16                 95
17-18                 105

Despite the increase in precautions taken by young athletes, their parents and coaches, the overall rate of injury since 2000 has remained the same. And the number of young athletes who have sustained multiple injuries while playing team sports has increased substantially, jumping from 15 percent in 2000 to 21 percent today. Part of the reason for this increase in injuries is the increased rate of injuries in girls from 10 to 14 years of age, equaling the rate in boys at the same age range.2

Baseball, especially pitching, is a prime example of the problem, although any sport based on the domination of particular movements can be at fault. The one-sport baseball pitcher uses their pitching arm year-round, leading to an increased risk of overuse injury. In fact, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of all injuries suffered by middle- and high-school athletes are caused by overuse.

Table 2: Days of Rest Required Based on Pitch Count

Pitch Count (Ages 7-16)                   Pitch Count (Ages 17-18)                  Days of Rest Required After Pitching
1-20                                                         1-25                                                            0
21-40                                                      26-50                                                           1
41-60                                                      51-75                                                           2
61-more                                                 76-more                                                         3

Amazingly, the Tommy John operation for a torn ulnar collateral ligament is increasingly being performed on young baseball players. Originally, this procedure was reserved for professional players, but of late, high-school students are undergoing these procedures at alarming rates. This is definitely related to overuse. The Andrews Sports Medicine Center attributes the increase in this surgery to year-round throwing, inadequate rest between starts, throwing more than 80 miles per hour (probably because these are the kids who get asked to throw a lot by their coaches), and pitching in showcases.