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Young Athletes Spending More Time On Free Play Face Fewer Injuries

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Encouraging young athletes to spend more time playing sports just for fun may be one way to prevent injuries, new research suggests.

The study conducted at the Loyola University found that injured young athletes who play a single sport, such as tennis, spent much less time in free play and unorganised sports than uninjured peers who play tennis and a variety of other sports.

In the study, sports medicine specialist Neeru Jayanthi and co-investigators followed 891 young athletes, including 124 tennis players, who were seen at Loyola University Health System and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago clinics. Of the study participants, 618 sought treatment for sports injuries and the rest were uninjured athletes who went for sports physicals. Of those playing tennis, 74 played it exclusively.

The study found that injured single-sport tennis players spent 12.6 hours per week playing tennis in an organised way and just 2.4 hours per week in free play and recreation. However, the uninjured tennis players spent 9.7 hours weekly in organised sports and 4.3 hours in free play and recreation, so both groups had a similar number of weekly hours. In other words, those who suffered injuries spent much more time playing organised tennis than they did in free play relative to their uninjured counterparts.

A similar ratio was found when comparing injured participants specialising in tennis with uninjured athletes playing all sports, suggesting that more involvement in a range of unorganised sports and free play may help protect against injury, especially among tennis players, Jayanthi said.

The findings are part of an ongoing prospective study of young athletes who are seen in clinics and followed for three years. The study has enrolled 891 participants so far.