Let’s face it: everyone dreamed of their kids becoming the next sports star?
Youth sports can be a minefield, and one must take into consideration both their kids’ physical as well as mental well-being.
In a previous blog, we defined the 2 different and opposite approaches to youth sports, in this second (and final part) we provide some reasons WHY most kids will generally benefit more from a late specialization system. We will also provide some evidence-based guidelines to make sure parents can make more informed decisions.
Let’s see what the evidence says and why parents need to critically evaluate the activities their kids are involved with.
1) Overuse injuries:
Playing the same sports all the time (with little recovery time) will overload the soft tissues, likely trigger injuries. It is not a coincidence that Severs’, Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (Shin Splints) and Osgood-Schlatter’s disease are now a plague across primary and high school active kids (1). A kid playing 3 different sports can be great for multi-skill acquisition, however, if all those sports are running-based, the overuse is just around the corner.
2) Limited movement library
When kids get to practice one sport only, the opportunity to experience enough variation of movement patterns is drastically reduced, limiting the plasticity to different training/game environments and demands. The tissues also become less resilient to novel stresses (2)
The repetitive stress does not compromise the soft tissues only, the mind pays its price too. Burnout is one of the main causes of dropout from sports; it hits at any age and especially young kids who stop enjoying the activity because the pressure for results and performance creeps in (2), (3)
Medical consensus: according to the position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Sports specialization (3) may be a factor affecting burnout.
Data suggest that athletes who had early specialized training withdrew from their sport due to either an injury or a burnout from the sport. It must be said that this is not always the case, especially in teens who generally stop because of new interests or conflicts with other commitments.
What can we do?
Below are some important evidence-based suggestions for any parent to take into consideration:
1) Workloads: Limiting weekly and yearly participation time, limits on sport-specific repetitive movements (throwing for instance), and scheduled rest periods are recommended. Monitoring the loads, they are subject to is key.
2) Stress-free play: increasing the unorganized playtime with siblings and parents, helps keep kids active, favors the relationships, and it works for us parents too, as a reminder that sport does not have to be always about competition, but the fun is the main pillar of long participation.
3) Measurements: Periodically measure the children’s height (seated and standing) to see the different rates of bone development and when spikes happen.
4) Anti-fragile kids: Get your kids to start appropriate resistance training as soon as you can. According to an important paper (4) increasing strength is the best way to make them robust and be less injury-prone.
Finally, as a bonus, find below a guideline of Q&As retrieved from a study from Parker et al. (2), providing a series of questions for parents and athletes, to help them recognize and re-evaluate their kids’ sports schedule (see below).
Question for parents/athletes
ASSESS TRAINING VOLUME
|Between games and practice, how many hours per week do you train?
How many days off per week do you take?
How many months per year do you participate in sports?
|Training volume should not exceed the children’s years of age.
1/2 days per week of rest from structured sport participation
3 months per year (at least 1 month block at the time) from organized sport to allow for mental and physical recovery
|Are you having fun?
How would your life change if you were not playing your sports?
How does the time taken from your sport/training affect your life with school, friends and family?
Enjoyment is the MAIN drive for motivation and should be the paramount.
If they are not having fun, consider a change or a break from organized sport.
If sport is a source of stress or anxiety, consider a change
|What do you like to do for sport or exercise?
Do you have a favorite sport?
Are you hoping to play at Elite level?
Encourage children to play a variety of sports and activities
Specialization maybe appropriate for adolescents who have a strong preference in a sport activity
Always encourage a diverse approach to sports and recreational activities
Table 1 – adapted from Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports (2)
If this topic has triggered some interest, I highly recommend you check out the book: “The Sporting Parent”
This is a fantastic book that every parent should not miss; written by Nathan Parnham, a superb Australian physical performance coach, and keynote speaker on the subject, with incredible experience in the school setting as well as in professional sport.