I’ve seen many young athletes have their athletic careers cut short due to preventable injuries and / or burnout. We live in a competitive time and everyone likes to feel successful. When kids do well in a sport, we want to encourage them to be their best, so we let them try out for the competitive team and even play on several teams throughout the year. While this can seem to help them improve their skills and grow to be a better player, it often has the opposite effects.
The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine has released a Consensus Statement on this topic. Many parts echo the consensus statement of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
A consensus statement is basically a summary of what leading experts believe based on current research and understanding.
If you don’t want to read the entire summary below, just know that experts aren’t in favor of it.
They do acknowledge that there are a few sports- such as gymnastics, figure skating, swimming and dance- that might benefit from earlier specialization because their peak years are in the teens and twenties.
Current research shows that before puberty children should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports that match their level of ability.
They should also be allowed free play that does not have direct coaching from adults.
Playing various sports helps to develop muscle strength and skills that can be protective of injury. Playing various sports and including unstructured playtime helps develop not only sports-related skills, but also helps them develop psychologically and socially.
What do the consensus statements say?
They start by defining early sport specialization as the following:
- Participation in organized sports more than 8 months per year
- Participation in one sport rather than several different sports
- Children before the pubertal years, which they state is roughly 7th grade or 12 years, but ranges considerably and is typically 8-13 years in girls and 10-15 years in boys
Risks of early sport specialization include:
- Over scheduling
- Overuse injuries
Over scheduling risks
Over scheduling can lead to increased stress and anxiety and overall poor habits.
It can decrease the amount of time a student can study. Obviously children need to have time to study so they can learn the most they can in school to prepare them for life.
Organized sports do not allow children to interact in an unstructured way with other kids. The time lost in free play can set kids behind peers in social skills.
Being over scheduled often results in sleep loss, which can contribute to mood and behavior changes as well as poor growth.
As families run from activity to activity, they often miss out on family meals. Family meals are important for family bonding and are associated with healthier eating.
When families run through a drive thru or get pizza between practices and games, they are foregoing a healthy balance of lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
When kids live a sport day in and day out they are at risk of burnout.
A child who once loved soccer or baseball might one day decide they want to quit the sport all together if they don’t have balance in life.
They often plateau or decline in sport performance. This might be a part of a larger depression or anxiety, or simply a desire to scale back or to try something new.
Signs of burnout include moodiness, irritability, trouble focusing, appetite loss, headaches, stomach aches, decreased strength and coordination, and increased rates of illness.
Overuse injuries are common when kids do the same activity over and over, day after day without time for adequate rest between activities.
Prevention can include taking proper time to rest, slowing increasing intensity, strength training and rotating types of activity throughout the year.
Some suggestions made in the consensus statements listed above to avoid injuries and burnout include:
- Rest at least 1 day each week
- Take at least 3 months off each year (1 month every 3 months)
- Increase intensity only 10% each week
- Limit sport-specific repetitive movements (such as pitching)
- Play on only one team per season
- Use conditioning programs to strengthen supporting muscles
- Learn and use proper techniques
- Keep play fun
- Play no more hours per week than age (i.e. 12 hours / week maximum for a 12 year old)
- Insure proper sleep for age
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Wear proper sport – specific protective gear that is the right size and in good condition