When Phil Jalalpoor opted to major in Sport Science at university, he didn't require a guinea pig when it came time to analyze the impacts of early sport specialization on the human body.
He was his own case study.
Jalalpoor, who played basketball for Iran at the 2022 Beijing Summer Olympic Games and has fashioned a pro career with Mehdi Bayreuth of Germany's Basketball Bundesliga, took to the hardwood full-time in his early teens. And that decision took its toll on his body.
As a youngster, Jalalpoor dabbled in a variety of sports, including soccer, track and field, gymnastics, swimming and tennis.
"My parents were big on me trying different things," Jalalpoor said.
At the age of 14, he made the decision to devote his sporting life to his first love, basketball.
"I specialized a little too early and I’ve kind of had to pay for that in my early 20s," Jalalpoor explained. "I started doing too much early basketball when I was 14-15-16.
"From age 15 on I was playing for three different teams at the same time and seasons are very long – August-September to April-May. It obviously improved my skillset but I started having problems with my joints at age 18, 19, 20.
"I was a skilled basketball player and it helped me getting recruited but throughout my college career I was almost working backwards through deficiencies, because I played too much basketball and had not done enough strength training.
"Just the fact that you’re doing the same movements over and over, there’s so much stress to my body at that time that when I was in college I had so much injury problems.
"At age 17-18, that’s when my knees started to hurt and my ankles, all of those things. Now I’m icing and taking painkillers at age 18. It was more surviving through practice and that’s obviously not helping.
"In the summers I had to do less, do different types of movements and take time off basketball."
It was during his studies in kinesiology at university that the window of knowledge into the dangers created by early sport specialization were explained and the figurative light bulb went on over Jalalpoor's head.
"You start having a little bit of an understanding," Jalalpoor said. "A lot of the courses, when we’d open up topics, I would be like, ‘Oh that makes sense.’ I started understanding and putting more of the puzzle together."
He's come to realize that by focusing entirely on one sporting pursuit while his body was still growing and developing, Jalalpoor was actually doing harm to himself.
"When I was younger, I enjoyed what I was doing but also basketball was a little more special," Jalalpoor said. "I didn’t have 10-12 practices a week, so I was getting more out of them."
He's come to recognize how the other sports he participated in were actually contributing to his growth as a basketball player.
"Track and field was a good fit to develop overall athleticism," Jalalpoor said. "I did long jump, high jump and it for sure helped me on the basketball court. Just the time away was good to not do the same movements.
"I had no injuries until I was 18. I trained 10-12 times a week (at basketball). It’s so much. I think I could’ve reduced it to eight and had the same efficiency."
These days, he encourages all youngsters to have a go at a number of sports and to hold off on selecting the one to pursue full-time until their bodies have time to evolve.
"There’s very few people you meet even in the pros who specialized early," Jalalpoor said. "They all did mutliple sports.
"From everything I’ve read and my personal experience and from listening to leaders in the field, it seems really clear to have people try to engage in as many sports as possible. The base goal should be to have a healthy relationship with activity."