Research Horizons


First Sports-Specific Virtual Reality Study Shows Coordination Variances Based on Sports Specialization

Sports Medicine | Top Scientific Achievement
2023 Research Discoveries Panel A displays what participants viewed during the cutting scenario. The grey dashed lines in panel A indicate the path the non-player characters (NPC) took with the central NPC passing the ball to the left or right NPC. Panel B is a top-down view of the cutting scenario. The black dashed line going through the player-controlled avatar (i.e., the avatar at the top of panel B) indicated the run-up phase with the white dashed line coming directly off that line toward the soccer ball representing the cutting toward the NPC. The grey dashed line going from the middle NPC to the left indicated the ball path.
Helping Athletes De-Specialize

Sports specialization commonly entails intense training in a single sport year-round, excluding other sports. While this may help athletes achieve elite performance levels and accompanying rewards, there are potential drawbacks, including an increased risk of musculoskeletal overuse injuries. While exercise-based injury prevention programs can help reduce lower extremity injury risks, little is known about how sports specialization influences frequently performed sports movements, such as change-in-direction maneuvers.

“Young athletes are specializing in one sport in ever greater numbers at the expense of participating in multiple sports and generalized play; and despite the potential benefits, sport specialization may be detrimental to the health of young athletes,” says Scott Bonnette, PhD, primary author of the study.

The research team found that highly specialized athletes can respond more successfully and efficiently in virtual reality simulations of a soccer-specific cutting scenario—making a quick, sharp turn—than their nonspecialized peers. Overall, highly specialized athletes tended to exhibit significantly greater coordination and ability to intentionally break coordinated patterns to execute a cutting maneuver. However, this increased ability to respond with more adaptive movement patterns may place athletes at greater risk for injuries.

“The results of this study are important because it is one of the first to utilize motion capture and sport-specific virtual reality scenarios to reveal that specialized athletes exhibit both intra- and inter-limb coordination patterns that are different than unspecialized athletes,” says Bonnette.

To build on this foundational work, future studies are planned to establish the link between specialization and musculoskeletal injury risk; to evaluate the prophylactic effect of training programs that alter the movement patterns of specialized athletes; and to explore at what age specialization may negatively affect motor coordination.

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Publication Information
Original title: Differences in Lower Extremity Coordination Patterns as a Function of Sports Specialization
Published in: Journal of Motor Behavior
Publish date: Jan. 15, 2023
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Research By

Scott Bonnette
Scott Bonnette
Division of Sports Medicine