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Advice to young athletes: A variety of sports is the spice of life

Children participate in a sports clinic at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. The installation partnered with the YMCA of Pikes Peak Region to teach young athletes the fundamentals of baseball, gymnastics, soccer, and basketball. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff. Sgt. Wes Wright) Children participate in a sports clinic at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. The installation partnered with the YMCA of Pikes Peak Region to teach young athletes the fundamentals of baseball, gymnastics, soccer, and basketball. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff. Sgt. Wes Wright)

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Basketball standout Machaela Simmons planned to spend the summer before her senior year of high school playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball hoping to attract attention from college recruiters. But after injuring her knee in March while trying out for an AAU team, she had surgery at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Virginia. Instead of playing basketball, the 17 year old rehabilitated and underwent physical therapy. She also volunteered with the American Red Cross in the hospital’s physical therapy department.

“She met other injured athletes her age,” said Machaela’s mother, retired Army Col. Sara Simmons. “It seemed a lot of them played only one sport.”

Young athletes who focus on one sport instead of sampling a variety are more likely to suffer overuse injuries, according to a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. It supports previous findings from the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Orthopaedic Society. An overuse injury is damage to a bone, muscle, ligament, or tendon because of repetitive use without adequate rest.

“Specializing leads to mastery of the skills needed for that particular sport, but playing a variety of sports improves overall fitness and athletic ability,” said Dr. Terry Adirim, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for health services policy and oversight.

“You develop other skills, and you’re not stressing the same parts of the body in the same way,” said Adirim, a pediatric emergency physician who also is board-certified in sports medicine.

Machaela and her older brother participated in several sports when they were growing up, including softball, swimming, and track. “I’ve always appreciated the different opportunities the military communities offer to children,” Simmons said.

When Machaela started high school, she decided to focus on her favorite: basketball. She didn’t experience any health issues until her junior year, Simmons said, when hip pain preceded the knee injury. PE class was no longer a requirement, and Simmons believes the lack of this diversified physical activity may have been a factor in her daughter’s injuries.

Burnout is also an issue for children who focus on one sport, Adirim said. Signs your child is experiencing burnout include declining performance in the sport and in the classroom, complaints about aches and pains, and difficulty sleeping.

“Kids may all of a sudden say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Adirim said. “Parents can ask them why, because there could be other things going on that have nothing to do with burnout.”

And for those who think specializing will help a young athlete’s odds of playing beyond high school, consider the young California boy who didn’t focus only on baseball, despite exhibiting tremendous skills in that particular sport. He also played basketball and soccer and at 14, added football to the mix. It wasn’t until college that Tom Brady finally focused on football, and started down the path of a hall of fame career.

Adirim said parents can encourage their children to try a variety of fitness activities, even informally. “I recommend doing things as a family, such as hiking or walking,” she said.

Simmons said her daughter’s love of basketball hasn’t diminished, and she’s made better-than-expected progress since her knee surgery. And while it may have sidelined some opportunities, it also was a valuable learning experience.

“It taught Machaela a great deal about the importance of physical conditioning,” Simmons said. “She’s now aware and focused on what it takes to prevent injury.”

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