Sports specialization in kids may result in injury and burnout
By Elizabeth Quinn
It’s not uncommon for kids today to take their play pretty seriously. Sports practices, personal coaching, drills and detailed workout routines seem to be part of the new normal for any kid who wants to play any sport. The days of fun, exercise, fresh air and random play have given over to organized, over-scheduled and serious training. And more kids are becoming specialized at a very young age. In the 80s most kids who played sports, played multiple sports throughout the year, and had big gaps that included random outdoor fun. Today, the number of kids who are encouraged (or who chose) to narrow in on one sport, and try to excel at that just one sport, is large, and still growing. And while some kids thrive in this environment, many are suffering the consequences of too much of the same activity, for too long, and with too much intensity. Overuse injuries, burnout and mental fatigue are starting to appear in kids as young as eleven and twelve.
According to stopsportsinjuries.org, more than 3.5 million kids under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year and high school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations every year. Children between the ages of five and fourteen account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in hospitals. And even more surprisingly,overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students.
One reason that experts give for this dramatic increase in injuries is a new trend toward sports specialization in young athletes. This specialization, and the year-round training programs that go with it, also seems to be linked with a dramatic rise in the number of kids showing up in doctor’s offices with chronic overuse injuries including tendinitis, and even physical (and mental) burnout. And many kids are suffering from injuries that once were only seen in pro athletes. Joints reconstruction in young athletes, unheard of in the 70s and 80s, started emerging in the 90s, and has become a growing trend in the past decade.
The recent trend towards sports specialization in young athletes has resulted in kids following year-round training routines, overusing muscles, joints and growing bodies in grueling repetition. The idea that starting young and training early might lead to scholarships, pro careers, success and endorsements can blind many well-intentioned coaches and parents. Kids bodies are far more vulnerable to the stress of repetitive movements, and eventually, will break down.
Parents and coaches can avoid many of the harms of overtraining in kids by simply helping set the right environment for healthy sports participation.
- Time off from organized sports.
Give kids a break by encouraging them to take a minimum of two to three months away from any one sport during the year.
- Encourage kids to play multiple sports, at different times of the year.
Different sports, and different movement patterns help kids stay healthy, and balanced. Using the same movements, the same muscles and the same joints none-stop through the year is a set-up for injury. Encourage a wide-range of activities including swimming, field sports, court sports, biking, walking and random play.
- Reduce repetitive motions, like batting or pitching.
Any activity, or sport, that required repetitive and systematic range of motion of one or more joints can wreak havoc on young bodies. Practicing the same motion–pitching, swinging, or kicking–over and over throughout the year isn’t ideal for growing bodies. It’s better to have kids play sports that require a wide-range of fluid movements, or mix up pitching practice, with fielding practice to allow muscles and joints to rest, and recover. Working a variety of muscles in different ways also helps keep a growing body in balance, and encourages a wide range of skills, coordination, agility and flexibility. So encourage kids to play a range of positions in their sport and leave the skills drills for special occasions, not daily practices.
- Play attention to warning signs of overuse.
Nagging injuries that are left untreated can quickly turn into chronic problems that require a much longer recovery time. They may even result in long-term problems that never heal properly.
- Treat injuries immediately.
Pull kids off the field at the first sign of an injury. Any injury that involves pain, swelling, weakness, or decreased movement needs medical attention. And any injury that doesn’t improve in a day or two warrants a visit to a physician.
- Take head injuries very seriously.
Concussions in youth sports can have very serious long-term consequences if ignored. The damage from even a mild bump on the head can become cumulative, and each successive head injury can have more and more serious effects. If you suspect a concussion, pull your child immediately and follow the concussion treatment guidelines.