War Stories of a Former Youth Athlete: A Case Against Early Specialization

When you are a competitive athlete, the field of play is your battlefield. The moment you step under the lights you go from a typical person into a warrior, out to defeat your opponent and claim victory for your team. Each battle has its own story about the struggle you went through to get the “W” or if you weren’t so lucky, the Loss. Growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, I had a chance to play against some big name players during my time as a shooting guard for New Berlin West and have plenty tales of my own. One of my favorites was facing a Pewaukee team led by JJ Watt and coming out victorious…twice! (Link below with the schedule for the doubters and yes, he was as dominant on the court as he is on the field)

We all have them. The times when your athletic career was at its peak and you were on top of the world. The game where you hit your first home run. That time you took an interception back for a touchdown. The game-winning basket. But like many war stories, they can come with scars. The torn ACL, Tommy John’s surgery, spine fusion, concussions, and the list goes on. These types of injuries have kept athletes on the sideline for an extended period of time or ended careers depending on the severity…

…and many of them could have been avoided.

The correlation of overuse injuries and early sport specialization is a highly discussed topic among rehab and performance specialists right now. Recent trends suggest that they are on the rise with young athletes, especially those that are only playing one sport year round. Flashes of talent at an early age does not mean that a player should be pigeon-holed into a single sport for the rest of their careers. The pressures from select/traveling teams, coaches, and college recruiting gives the impression that these student athletes need to train the same skills repeatedly and not give their body enough time to adapt to the stresses. Although there have been great efforts by professional organizations to put guidelines in place (ex. MLB’s Pitch Smart), the prevalence of these injuries continues to be a plague in youth athletics. For example, with baseball, youth programs want to have successful seasons but may only have one or two pitchers that will keep them competitive. The pitcher goes out almost every game, at least for a few innings, and will pitch through pain in order to get the win. Between 2007 and 2011, over 56% of Tommy John surgeries were performed on athletes between the ages of 15-19 and the number of incidences in that age group increased almost 10% annually.  

Some common conditions that present in youth athletes who have not taken the proper amount of rest or diversity in their training can include: rotator cuff tears, microtrauma of long bones, avulsion fractures, osteochondritis dissecans, and stress fractures. Luckily, most of these injuries can be managed with rest from anywhere from a few days to 6 months. However, the long term effects of these injuries could predispose the athlete to injuries in the future by changing their movement patterns, muscle tone, and, depending on their stage of development, bone structure.

Now, how can we change this? It all comes down to EDUCATION and CULTURE. The athletes, the coaches, the parents, trainers, and referees need to be educated about how to prevent these injuries from occurring and what to look for when they do happen. Understanding that having intense levels of training and competition on a daily basis can be detrimental to recovery. This will help develop a mindset that will start at the elite programs and trickle down to the youth systems. Here are a few examples of measures that can be taken to help reduce the risk of overuse injuries:

  • Remembering that the time spent in recovery is as important, if not more than, the time spent training.  
  • Implementing restrictions to reduce exposure to overuse during training like pitch counts and off days.  
  • Establish a strong baseline of strength and mobility before engaging in repetitive movements that apply high stress on the body.  
  • Don’t play through pain. If a player is experiencing pain, they should suspend activity until it completely subsides and they are evaluated by a trained health professional.  

While training the specific skills that are needed for a sport are important, the development of the overall athlete should not be ignored. Allow players to continue and grow in all aspects of movement. Encouraging kids to be successful in all aspects of sport will create a better environment for them to enjoy athletics longer and stay healthier while doing it. According to USA Football, 28 of the 31 First Round draft picks were multi-sport athletes in high school. By adding other sports like track and basketball, these players developed movement literacy in all planes and became professional athletes. Why should we prevent kids to reach those heights by having them specialize at a young age?

“Change the name ‘specialization’ of youth sports to ‘limitation’. Because that’s all specialization does for kids.” – Jim Ferris



Dr. Michael Giammarco earned his Doctor of Chiropractic from Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minneapolis, MN and a BS in Exercise and Sports Science from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Along with his background as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, he combines exercise rehabilitation and manual therapy to get his patients back to the activities they love. He has a passion for working with athletes of all disciplines and skill levels. Currently, he provides care for the Milwaukee Wave Professional Indoor Soccer team and University of Milwaukee Athletics along with other Goodyear Health Center practitioners.