With all the clubs, academies and school teams available to youth athletes, early sport specialization has become a normality and is often promoted by parents and coaches alike. That being said, one of the major problems that we're seeing in youth sports today is the development of imbalances due to overuse. Much of these imbalances that we see are caused by early sport specialization and overuse.
But what is early sport specialization?
In short, it’s the concept that an athlete plays only one sport from a very young age and never does any other sport. This means an athlete is performing the same movement over and over again. By performing the same movement over and over again, it causes certain areas of the body to over develop and other areas to under develop. This puts the athlete at a higher risk for injury. Movements commonly associated with overuse due to early specialization are throwing, running, swinging, and jumping.
What is an Overuse Imbalance?
An overuse imbalancement is characterized by an athlete performing a movement over and over with the same musculo-tendon structures. This causes a lack of proportion in strength and stability to the active area compared to the lesser used area. Overuse imbalances are potentially caused by continuous repetition, insufficient rest, a lack of variety of movements, technique deficiencies, lack of strength and mobility of the structures. Imbalances can often lead to a performance detriment and eventually injury, which no athlete can afford.
On the bright side, overuse imbalances are avoidable and correctable through proper coaching and strength and conditioning!
For example, let's look at a rotational athlete (Golf, Tennis, Baseball, Softball). These athletes are rotating in one direction over and over again. This means their opposing side (or less dominant side) won’t have the same control or power. The active site leads to an overactive muscle, which will lead to tightness and shortening of the structures surrounding it, making for a stiff or immobile area. An immobile structure can lead to injury in other areas by forcing the other area to take on the forces or make up for the forces meant for the active area. This can lead to postural imbalances as one side is constantly pulling the body to one side and out of alignment.
Some simple exercises that can help alleviate rotational imbalances are compound multi joint movements that engage a lot of musculature. These exercises can also be done in a unilateral plane once the athlete has achieved sufficient balance throughout their body to further stress the system. (Deadlift, squat, farmer walk variations, medicine ball throws and anti rotational core)
A lack of strength can also lead to imbalances in athletes. When an athlete is constantly using one side of their body or a specific set of muscles to perform a movement, it does not allow a balance of stress and adaptation to occur equally throughout the body. An example of this may be a basketball, volleyball or track athlete favoring one foot when they perform a jump. When forced to use the non-dominant limb, the musculature is not ready for the impact and ultimately does not perform to the level that is needed, putting the athlete at a higher risk for injury.
Exercises that focus on achieving a strength balance will be of major benefit to any athlete suffering from single limb imbalances. When performing many of these exercises an athlete may notice one side stronger than the other and must work to obtain a more equal balance between the sides.(Split squat, Rear elevated squat, lunges, single arm press variations, single arm row variations, side planks and bridges)
The key to keeping an athlete healthy revolves around performing a variety of movements, building strength equally throughout the system and practicing mobility and stability throughout those movements as well as sufficient rest and balanced nutrition.