One of our most treasured traditions, youth sports, has a nagging problem.
In a study completed this year, the Loyola University Medical Center found that children who play one sport for more hours a week than they are years old are 70 percent more likely to get a chronic overuse injury of the back, shoulder or elbow than other types of injuries.
Young athletes specializing year-round in a single sport typically clock 18 to 36 hours of training each week. In addition to regular season play, they attend training camps, take private instruction and join elite teams that keep them involved in high-level competition throughout the year.
"My best memories growing up are the times I spent being with my teammates and playing soccer," says Cheryl Hirss, a Bellingham financial advisor who still loves playing the game 10 years after finishing her senior season on the University of Washington women's soccer team.
Cheryl played multiple sports until she turned 13 then began focusing her attention on soccer year-round. According to the Loyola study, this strategy of playing more than one sport growing up helped Cheryl avoid injury and an early end to her dream of being a college athlete.
Overuse injuries in youth sports is not a new problem. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement discouraging children from specializing in a single sport before adolescence. It states that children "should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills."
Unfortunately, not all parents follow the pediatric academy's recommendation. It is especially common in sports such as gymnastics, where children are under pressure to master their sport early in order to remain competitive. According to a report in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, it is not uncommon for a 10-year-old elite athlete to train 25 to 36 hours a week.
Some parents decide that specializing early is a good thing for their child because it gives them an advantage when competing for a spot on elite teams. These elite teams offer stronger coaching and the opportunity to gain experience at the highest level of competition. By specializing early, the young athlete gets a head start on clocking the training hours needed to master a sport. While this is the standard for producing elite athletes, it is also a standard plagued with the early onset of chronic lifetime injuries.
One common overuse injury is found in baseball, when young children get elbow injuries from hours of throwing repetitions to perfect a curveball before they are developmentally ready for it.
Unfortunately, by the time overuse injures start to show up, the athlete and the parent have extensive amounts of time, emotion and money invested in their training. This leads them to ignore expert recommendations for injury prevention and recovery.
Parents of elite athletes can spend $5,000 annually to support their child's specialization. It is easy to see why these parents might pressure their children to keep playing after having invested so much into their children's early excitement over a sport.
Cheryl played soccer because she loved it. But she and other athletes recognize that not all of their teammates played for the same reason. "Some kids keep playing because their parents project on them the superstar athlete they remember themselves to have been as a child," says Cheryl.
Other parents believe specializing early is a way to help their child get scholarships and be successful in life. But sports scholarships are rare and the risk of injury and burnout is high. "It should be about what the child wants, not what the parent wants," says Cheryl, who recalls teammates whose parents were overbearing and demanding of their kids.
These parents are not hard to spot. They may over-exaggerate their child's accomplishments and at the same time criticize their performance. They might be heard yelling at their child from the sideline or arguing with coaches and loved ones about the seriousness of an injury. The pressured child is also easily recognized. They may develop a pattern of wanting to skip practice, have frequent conflicts with teammates and coaches, and find various other reasons to reduce their time playing.
Some kids simply lose interest in being an elite athlete and find other passions to follow. And some kids find their perfect match after years of experimenting with various sports. These are the healthy outcomes that are likely to occur when parents recognize their child's cues about needing a break and exploring other opportunities.
Experts recommend that parents who want their young child to specialize year-round on one sport get an unbiased professional opinion and work with a sports medicine specialist. Or, as an alternative, they advise following the examples of stars like Michael Jordan and Steve Nash and encourage their child to play multiple sports growing up. This will increase their likelihood of success as an elite athlete and a lifetime of enjoyment and fitness playing competitive sports.
PREVENTING OVERUSE INJURIES AND BURNOUT
Overuse injuries are preventable. To reduce the likelihood of an overuse injury, experts suggest:
For grade-school children, weekly training hours on one sport should be equal to or less than their age.
Training routines and hours should be relaxed during growth spurts when the child is most susceptible to overuse injuries.
The child should spend one hour of free play and pickup games for every two hours of organized training.
The youth athlete should take at least two months off from the sport each year.
When recovering from an injury, follow a physician's instructions and increase training hours by only 10 percent a week.
Look for signs of burnout and keep family time and free play time a high priority.
Byron Manering, executive director of the Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham, blogs on health and wellness issues for children 12 and younger at BellinghamFamilies.com.