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Study: Sports 'Free Play' Could Protect Against Youth-Athlete Injuries

Single-sport specialization and an increase in organized competition could lead to a higher rate of injuries for youth-athletes, according to a study presented at the Society for Tennis Medicine and Science and United States Tennis Association-Tennis Medicine and Injury Conference.

The findings, released to the public this past Friday, suggest that more unorganized competition and "free play" could help protect against youth-athlete injuries.

Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, an associate professor at the Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, and colleagues investigated 891 youth-athletes in the Chicago area for this study. Out of the pool of participants, 618 of those athletes went to the Loyola University Health System or Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago for treatment of sports injuries, while the other 273 were uninjured and came in for sports physicals.

The study included 124 total tennis players, 74 of whom specialized in only tennis.

Among the 74 single-sport tennis players, 65 of them (about 87.5 percent) reported an injury, while only nine did not. The 65 who were injured spent 12.6 hours per week playing organized tennis and only 2.4 hours a week in free play or recreation. Comparatively, the uninjured single-sport tennis players played organized tennis for 9.7 hours per week and spent 4.3 hours per week in free play or recreation. Both the injured and noninjured specialized tennis players spent roughly the same amount of time per week in either organized or recreational play.

When Jayanthi and his colleagues compared the 74 specialized injured tennis players with the 273 uninjured athletes who played a range of sports, they found the uninjured athletes spent roughly 9.8 hours per week playing organized tennis or other sports and engaged in free play or recreation for 5.2 hours per week.

In other words, the researchers found that the injured tennis players spent a much larger proportion of time playing organized sports than the noninjured ones and the overall group of noninjured youth-athletes.

"Our findings suggest that more participation in a variety of unorganized sports and free play may be protective of injury, particularly among tennis players," Jayanthi said in a statement.

While Jayanthi presented his findings last month, the study has not yet been published in an academic journal.

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