Sport specialization increases injury risk

Dr. Michael Ferrell, a sports medicine physician at Bridger Orthopedic, takes a look at his own MRI.

Although basketball season may have ended two months ago, Bozeman High School senior Mack Anderson is still hard at work in the gym.

Anderson decided to give up soccer after his sophomore season to focus on chasing his dream of playing college basketball.

"I really did enjoy playing soccer and was competitive with it,” Anderson said. “But (focusing on basketball) was kind of like taking the next step to wanting to play at the next level.”

The move paid off for Anderson, as he became an all-state player in his senior year and earned a scholarship from the University of Montana. But specializing in one sport can create a huge injury risk for student athletes.

According to research conducted by the University of Wisconsin, high school athletes who specialize in a single sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during their playing season than those who play multiple sports. The project was commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

They are more susceptible to “overuse injuries,” which occur when an athletic activity is repeated so often that certain parts of the body do not have enough time to heal.

"Easily 50 percent of the injuries we see are overuse injuries,” said Dr. Michael Ferrell, a sports medicine physician at Bridger Orthopedic in Bozeman.

Ferrell is also a team physician for Montana State University and Bozeman High School. He says that, theoretically, there is an increase in injury risk when playing multiple sports. But he is quick to add that the benefits of being a multisport athlete outweigh that risk.

"The benefits include hand-eye coordination, agility and balance,” Ferrell said. “All the different things you get out of playing multiple sports will actually help you in your primary sport."

That was the case for Alex Veltkamp, a senior at Manhattan Christian School, who is a three-sport athlete. She says playing volleyball and basketball improved her ability in track and field, which helped her land a track and field scholarship at Montana State University.

"I think that they saw that like, 'She's a multi-sport athlete, so once she starts focusing on one sport, she could probably excel a lot more than she has in high school,'” Veltkamp said. “I think, while talking to Coach Kennedy, that was one of the big things he saw."

Even though some fatigue can set in while playing three varsity sports, Veltkamp says the variety helps keep her mentally fresh.

"You're always doing something new throughout the school year,” Veltkamp said. “Throughout the summer, trying to perfect your skills, you're always doing something different."

Meanwhile, Anderson spent his summer on the AAU basketball circuit. That choice in sport specialization gave him the chance to be seen by more college scouts.

"I hadn't really been noticed by any schools," Anderson said. I mean, a couple NAIA schools and stuff, but no Division I schools, or anything like that. So it was just good. Even past the whole recruiting aspect, it was great to just travel and get to meet a bunch of new people."

If a high school athlete does choose to focus on a single sport, Ferrell recommends stretching before and after training, lots of time in the weight room to help build strength and a very simple tip.

"Basically rest,” Ferrell said. “If you're over-training or if you have poor mechanics or a combination thereof, you're going to have injuries."

The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine put together an online list of injury prevention tips in 25 different sports.

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