David Bell's research puts spotlight on hazards of sports specialization


Bell’s research put spotlight on hazards of sports specialization

There is a growing sense among those who pay attention to youth and high school athletics that more and more young people are focusing their efforts on excelling at a single sport, instead of playing a variety.

Although sports specialization is a hot topic, there is a surprising dearth of research on this issue says David Bell, an assistant professor with the Department of Kinesiology’s athletic training program.

David Bell
So Bell, who directs the Wisconsin Injury in Sports Laboratory, and colleagues from across UW–Madison decided to collect data on this topic and produced a groundbreaking study that was published earlier this year by the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Titled, “Prevalence of Sport Specialization in High School Athletics,” this one-year observational study found that 36.4 percent of athletes were considered highly specialized. And the researchers found that these highly specialized athletes who trained in one sport for more than eight months out of the year were more likely to report a history of knee and hip injuries.

Bell is the lead author on the report, which was co-authored by, among others, Department of Kinesiology Ph.D. students Eric Post and Stephanie Trigsted.

Since that original study was published, Bell and research partners across campus have been busy replicating the initial findings with slightly younger athletes (ages 12 to 14) and larger cohorts of high school student-athletes. Bell says this work consistently shows that about 35 percent of young athletes are highly specialized — and that these athletes are two to three times more likely to have a knee or hip injury.

If there is a key takeaway for young athletes and their parents, Bell says simply, “Make sure your children are getting breaks in competition.”

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