Specialization in Valley youth sports shows trend leading to more injuries

May 22, 2023, 4:15 AM | Updated: 6:29 am

A Valley teenage athlete changed sports from gymnastics to diving after suffering an injury at a yo...

Bella DeBattista took up diving after a shoulder injury ended her gymnastics career. (Courtesy Photos)

(Courtesy Photos)

PHOENIX — When a Valley teenager could no longer pursue her passion of sports, her mother said there was a lot of crying during the emotional time.

Nichole DeBattista said her 13-year-old daughter, Bella, had been in gymnastics since she was 4 years old. The gym had become her home away from home during the 20-30 hours per week she spent there once she was old enough to compete.

“About 11 years old, she noticed her shoulder really starting to bother her,” DeBattista said.

Bella learned she had instability in her shoulder, and despite attempts at physical therapy and rest, the overuse on the loose joint would require surgery and ultimately put an end to her gymnastics career.

While most overuse injuries aren’t that severe, they are something orthopedic surgeon Dr. Heather Menzer of Phoenix Children’s said she sees too often now.

“There is a significant shift on the amount of overuse injuries we see nowadays,” Menzer said.

One major culprit is a trend in sports specialization.

“They choose one sport or they quit the other sports that they’re in to participate in one sport, or they participate in a sport year-round,” Menzer said.

According to a 2019 article published by the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, 17%-41% of young athletes specialize in a sport, with that number varying due to factors such as age, gender or geographic locations.

This is especially true in kids who choose to specialize in sports when they haven’t fully matured.

“Kids are growing, so they have growth plates. A lot of overuse injuries that we see are in areas around growth centers,” Menzer said. That includes the knees, shoulders and elbows, the surgeon said.

Larry Graham is the founder of “Athletes Performance Enhancement,” a Valley gym that has trained some big names in sports, including former Arizona State University football star N’Keal Harry. He told KTAR News 92.3 FM playing year round without first establishing the right building blocks can be dangerous.

“You have to know what it takes to put together the type of athlete that can even endure a back-to-back season,” Graham said.

He noted that often means more work, not less, and a focus on the right things.

“What avenues do these athletes get to recover, to build a proper strength system, a conditioning system that will allow them to avoid these small nagging injuries to maintain max performance?” Graham said.

Despite the increase in overuse injuries, Menzer said sports are a great thing for kids and their development, especially in a more well-rounded way.

“It’s really good to participate in multiple sports until you reach kind of a physical maturity,” she said.

While that age isn’t clearly defined, 12 years old seems to be a commonly accepted timeframe when a kid can start homing in on one specific sport, albeit if it’s in moderation.

As for Bella, she’s now in Estrella Foothills High School in Goodyear and has found a new home in the water, competing in spring board diving, which has helped her cope with the loss of gymnastics.

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Specialization in Valley youth sports shows trend leading to more injuries