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Fall 2014, Ryan Tewes

Playing with dreams: The impact of sport specialization on young athletes

Angela Schumacher (in green) plays soccer five to six days a week in hopes of one day playing alongside her idol Alex Morgan on the United States Women’s National Team. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Angela Schumacher dives on a ball for a save in a game for the Murrieta Surf. Schumacher plays club soccer for multiple teams, five to six days a week and hopes her skills will one day allow her to play alongside her idol Alex Morgan on the United States Women’s National Team. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Young athletes throughout the United States dream about playing college and professional sports, taking great risks to meet their goal. As competition for athletic college scholarships rises, mental and physical pressure to perform well in club sports can increase before they even reach middle school.

For 10-year-old Angela Schumacher, her dream is to one day play goalie for the United States National Team. Schumacher is part of a growing population of children who are focusing on one single sport on a year-round basis, also known as specialization.

“I just want to play soccer,” Schumacher said. “It’s more athletic than other sports and I like the competition.”

Participation in sports is a rite of passage for many children and their families in the United States. The National Council of Youth Sports survey found that 60 million children in the United States between the ages of 6 and 18 participate in organized sports, with many of them now specializing in just one sport.

The life of a club athlete

Schumacher plays for three different teams with the Murrieta Surf Soccer Club, playing in games and tournaments in San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties.  She is a mid-defender for the lower level C team, a goalie on the under-11 team, and a member of the academy team. Her talent has some coaches asking for even more.

Each week Schumacher has two one-hour practices, two one-hour goalkeeper training sessions and a one-hour finishing clinic, in addition to playing one or two games.

“She loves it,” said Jessica Cohen, Angela’s mother. “We don’t push her to practice, it’s something she wants to do.”

To allow her to play in more games, her parents are taking steps to scale back her training, including seeking out a team and coach that understands her skill level and the approaches needed for different athletes.

VIDEO: Angela Schumacher and Jessica Cohen discuss the impact a coach has on a young soccer player.

The cost of specialization

Internal External RisksThere are benefits to participation in sports, namely the promotion of physical activity and a healthy lifestyle, but specialization in youth sports is a growing concern for pediatricians and physical therapists.

Of paramount concern is the increased number of overuse injuries, which occur when repetitive stress is applied to bones, muscles and tendons and an insufficient amount of time is given for them to heal.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has classified four stages of overuse injuries:

  1. Pain in the affected area after physical activity.
  2. Pain during the activity, without restricting performance.
  3. Pain during the activity that restricts performance.
  4. Chronic, unremitting pain even at rest.

“Fifty percent of injuries in pediatric sports medicine are due to overuse, which are highly preventable,” said Dr. Joel Brenner, chair of the AAP’s Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

In an effort to address the issue of overuse injuries the AAP advises clinicians, coaches and parents to encourage young athletes to do the following:

Every sport has a risk of injury and the regional popularity of a sport will impact the number of overuse injuries found in that area of the country.

In Southern California, the weather allows for most sports to be played on a year-round basis. Soccer, baseball, softball and volleyball are among the sports that are increasingly to blame for overuse injuries.

Dr. Kevin Pansky believes that patient education is a huge aspect of a rehab setting. Once the patient is educated they become empowered and understand what they need to do to get better. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Dr. Kevin Pansky believes that patient education is a huge aspect of a rehab setting. Once the patient is educated they become empowered and understand what they need to do to get better. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Dr. Kevin Pansky, head therapist at Isis Physical Therapy, is treating three female soccer players from the same team who each have an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury on one of their knees.

“In youth sports, one of the big epidemics right now, especially in female soccer players, is ACL injuries,” Pansky said.

ACL injuries are more likely to occur in sports where jumping and pivoting are a part of the game. The American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that female athletes are two to 10 times more likely to sustain knee ligament injuries than male athletes.

There is no easy explanation for why female athletes are at a greater risk than males, but much of the research points to the differences in anatomy, muscle strength, conditioning and changes in estrogen levels. Intense, year-round training is among the reasons the instances of ACL injuries are increasing.

“A lot of it comes down to how do they practice and how do they train,” said Panksy. “Many times it’s the practice that what actually hurts them and not the game.”


Dr. Ryan Paik says parent education is a key component to the prevention of overuse injuries. Parents must be involved and understand the limits that young athletes will encounter. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Dr. Ryan Paik says parent education is a key component to the prevention of overuse injuries. Paik wants parents to be more involved and understand the limits that young athletes will encounter. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Shoulder and elbow injuries are a major problem in youth baseball, sometimes for kids as young as 8 years old.

“It’s called growth plate separation. Basically they’re getting elbow pain in their actual growth plate, which is still forming,” said Dr. Ryan Paik of Gaspar Doctors of Physical Therapy Sports Performance Center.

Paik and his colleague Dr. Robert Snow work with what’s called “overhead athletes,” those who play baseball, softball, and volleyball, putting a lot of strain on their upper bodies. They both say the increased specialization of young athletes is leading to these injuries.

“Too much, too soon, too often,” Snow said. “Too many reps and too little rest.”

Josef Wiest displays the scar from his Tommy John surgery. Wiest and his family are hopeful his experience will be an example for others to be aware of the signs of overuse. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Josef Wiest shows the scar from his Tommy John surgery. Wiest and his family are hopeful that his experience will be an example for other young athletes and increase the awareness of overuse injuries. Photo by Ryan Tewes

Snow said that many kids play for multiple teams, which can contribute to the problem, particularly for young pitchers and catchers.

“An 11-year-old kid who threw a hundred and something pitches the day before who, with less than a day’s rest, he’s playing in another tournament as a catcher, where he’s throwing as many times as a pitcher. That’s a recipe for breaking your body down.”

Among Paik’s patients is 16-year-old Josef Wiest, a catcher for Carlsbad club baseball team No Fear and La Costa Canyon High School. Wiest arrived at Gaspar after having Tommy John surgery, an elbow ligament procedure named after the first baseball player to undergo the operation. The procedure is usually performed on major league baseball pitchers, but has grown increasingly common among adolescent pitchers and catchers in recent years.

SLIDESHOW: Josef Wiest discusses his elbow injury, Tommy John surgery and the extensive rehab necessary following the procedure.

To address the rising number of Tommy John surgeries being performed on young players, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball created Pitch Smart, guidelines to educate coaches, parents and young athletes about arm injuries and how to best prevent them. Among the Pitch Smart guidelines are recommendations for daily pitch limits and days of rest.

Volleyball also has a high risk for overuse injuries. Young athletes commonly play on a middle school team, one or two club teams and perhaps a separate scout team.

“They are literally playing on two to sometimes four teams and they’re playing year-round and their idea of a break is a long weekend off,” Pansky said.


Lack of breaks, or time off, is the key component to these injuries. A long weekend off may be beneficial, but the AAP recommends two days off each week.

Reasons for specialization

The lure of college athletics scholarships is a major reason parents encourage their children to specialize in a sport.

Many parents want their children to play on multiple teams so they can make their high school team and then be noticed by college scouts.

“If you don’t make the elite team when you’re 9, then you’re already one step behind,” Pansky said.

Physical therapists say they often see parents pushing their children to join club teams and take parts in tournaments to secure a college scholarship.

“Parents see that the best chance for kids to play on the high school baseball team is the he needs to be good enough and he has to play for their travel team,” Snow said. “So now the kid has to stay specialized to play on the high school team and the only chance to play in college is if he plays for the high school team.”

The NCAA reports that schools at the Division I and Division II levels annually distribute over $2 billion to roughly 126,000 student-athletes. However, there are limits on the number of scholarships that each team at each school can provide Only about 2 percent of high school athletes earn athletic scholarships.

NCAA Scholarships

Also, while the average scholarship amount appears high, only six sports offer full scholarships. These sports are called “head count” sports, providing one full scholarship per person. All of the other sports are considered equivalency sports, in which funds are allocated to a program and can be split amongst players as the coach sees fit.


Participation in club sports can have an impact on college admissions. University admissions officers agree that listing participation in club sports is beneficial during the application process.

“Universities value extracurriculars, such as club sports, because they show attributes we care about like leadership abilities, flexibility and tenacity,” said admissions officer Vanessa Peeck of U.C. San Diego.

For the fun of it

But there are other factors that lead to specialization in sports. Sometimes the kids just have the love of the game. Many young athletes acknowledge that a scholarship would be a great accomplishment, but they really play their sport because they enjoy it and want to play for as long as possible.

Jacob Knepple, 14, plays baseball year-round for the San Diego Tide, which participates in the San Diego Travel Baseball League. He has been playing baseball since he was 5 and playing full-time since he was 11.

“I like to compete and it’s a sport I do well in,” said Knepple. “I want to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.

Nathan Knepple, 11, is Jacob’s brother who plays soccer year round with Notts Forest Football Club in the Mesa Soccer Association. His reasoning is similar to that of his brother. He says he chose soccer because he plays it well and has fun.


About Ryan Tewes

Ryan is a graduate student in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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