Avoiding the Dangers of Youth Basketball Hyper-Specialization
By the title of this article, one might assume that too-early or too-intense specialization in the sport of basketball puts young people at a higher risk for injury than other sports. Research has shown those of us in sports medicine that this is a true statement, basketball certainly isn’t the only sport where specialization creates increased injury risk. Basketball is merely the sport I am highlighting here – after reading a thought-provoking ESPN article and having served as a former team physician for the Los Angeles Lakers and current team physician for the Los Angeles Sparks professional basketball organizations.
The ESPN article I referred to above: “‘These kids are ticking time bombs’: The threat of youth basketball,” should be nothing short of jarring for parents of young athletes, their coaches, the youth sports culture in America and its healthcare providers. The bodies of these young people are experiencing ‘wear-and-tear’ injuries historically seen in people who have worked for decades in hard-labor jobs. Chronic ankle injuries, cartilage, and joint issues, and back problems are some of the common overuse injuries we see in children who specialize in jumping sports, including basketball. Along with the serious physical injuries, there may be an elevated risk of burnout in kids who hyper-specialize in a sport at too young an age. With the pressure placed on young athletes today, this is sad, but not a surprise.
The ESPN article’s author estimates that, before the age of 20, a young, specialized basketball player could have played the equivalent of more than 12 NBA seasons. Couple this alarming number with the concern that these players’ bodies are “tailor-made” for their sport, but not for an otherwise healthy life or future. When basketball legend Kobe Bryant is questioning the intensity of the sport for his 10-year-old daughter, it isn’t crazy to wonder: Is it all a risky, injury-plagued ‘road to nowhere’?
Of course not. We know there are a plethora of benefits to sports participation for young people – from physical fitness to stress relief and socialization. The key, like most things in life, is moderation and not taxing these young bodies with too much, too soon. To help parents and coaches follow “doctor’s orders,” the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine aided in the creation of youth basketball guidelines. The guidelines were first published by the NBA and USA Basketball in late 2016, with a revision in 2018. The revision includes more specifics on “age- and stage-appropriate recommendations across four key areas: equipment and court specifications, game structure, and playing tactics and rules.” These guidelines also help to create a simplified and “tiered” approach to training for young basketball athletes that emphasizes limitations on both weekly training as well as annual playing time. The modifications are tailored to the age, developmental readiness, and growth rate of the young athletes, as well as to their previous injury history. To address the burnout concerns, the guidelines indicate that training emphasis should be on the development of basketball skills over the competitive aspects of the sport.
Here’s the tough part. Many of the research- and medical expert-backed recommendations put in place to keep our young basketball athletes safe and healthy are simply this – guidelines. They don’t prevent parents or coaches of an athlete who is believed to possess extraordinary talent from bending those guidelines in an attempt to benefit their special kid. Please take extreme caution with this way of thinking. Consider and protect your child’s body. He or she has to live in it for much longer than the number of years in the average NBA career. I have seen too many basketball and other athletic careers cut devastatingly short by catastrophic orthopedic injury – some of whom never even got to see a day of play in high school, let alone collegiate or professional. By all means, encourage your kids’ sports participation. Encourage their love for all sports. But please, don’t allow them to specialize in a sport until the doctor-recommended guidelines tell you it’s safe to do so.