Youth Sports Culture: The Sandlot Days Are Over
The Rise of Early Sport Specialization and Intense Training in Children
When was the last time you saw a Sandlot style pick up game happening in the neighborhood, with a group of young kids coming together to play a game for fun, with little to no adult supervision or influence? 40 years ago it was rare for a child to participate in organized sports year round, and, club and travel leagues were not nearly as prevalent as they are now. Early sports specialization has been on the rise since the 90’s. Today you can see children as young as 4 training in one sport almost year round usually in multiple leagues. As a parent of two young boys and a previous travel league athlete myself, I definitely get it. There is immense pressure to participate at a high level, and in order to do keep up, many feel that means specializing in a single sport early and training year round on multiple teams. When I was in high school, if you didn’t play club volleyball during the time that school volleyball wasn’t in season you would be so far behind whenever the season rolled back around that most of those people didn’t make the team after their freshman year. That was in the early 2000’s and it has only gotten worse since then. Today, it is not uncommon for children to specialize before the age of 10. The effects this is having on the minds and bodies of our children is detrimental. So what do you do when you want the best for your child and their aspirations to make the team and compete at a high level, but, you also want them to avoid injury, burn out and overtraining? I hope to give you some answers to that question with this blog.
Recommendations for Avoiding Overuse Injuries
As one would expect, with the rise of kids participating in year-round training also comes the rise of overuse injury rates. According to research, approximately 50% of all athletic injuries are overuse injuries. Overuse injuries occur as a result of repetitive trauma to the muscles, ligaments, tendons or nerves. Commonly known examples of overuse injuries include: tendonitis (e.g. achilles, rotator cuff, elbow), shin splints, little league elbow (tendonitis), tennis elbow (tendonitis), bursitis, or stress fractures. Children who play a single sport year round are more prone to overuse injuries because their bodies are developing at a rapid rate and they are performing the same repetitive movements over and over again. The following recommendations will reduce the risk of your child suffering from an overuse injury:
Playing Multiple Sports - Increasing sports variability also increases the variability of movements that your child performs while ensuring that they are staying active and involved in sports. For example, if your child is a baseball pitcher they are placing a significant amount of stress on their shoulder and elbow during the season. Giving them a break or an “offseason” in which they can develop their athleticism without adding extra stress to their throwing arm will significantly decrease their risk for overuse injuries and prolong their career. Specifically, it is recommended that children have at least a total of 3 months off throughout the year, in increments of 1 month, from their particular sport of interest.
Rest Days - The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children keep the amount of time they spend participating in organized sports per week less than their age in years. For example, if you have a 12 year old playing soccer they should not spend more than 12 hours a week playing soccer. This is a general rule of thumb and the recommendation has not yet been validated by research. Research does support that children who take a minimum of 1-2 days off per week from their sport have a reduced risk for developing an overuse injury.
Mobility - Intense training in a particular sport places a lot of stress on the joints and muscles of a developing body. An often overlooked aspect of physical conditioning in kids is ensuring that they have the adequate joint mobility necessary to perform certain movements properly without compensation. Most kids spend hours of their day sitting in a desk at school, wearing sneakers with built up heels, and in slumped postures while looking at their phone. This is a recipe for mobility issues regardless of wether or not they participate in sports. Finding a way to incorporate a mobility training program into your child’s routine is pivotal in reducing injury risk and ensuring longevity in sport.
Recommendations for Avoiding Burnout
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, intensive training in young athletes has both musculoskeletal and psychological effects. Burnout is often the result of psychological stress resulting from the pressure for these children to perform consistently at a certain level, in addition to, not having enough down time to relax and be a kid. As many as 70% of children who participate in organized sports will discontinue by the age of 13. This is a shocking number to me. Why are so many kids quitting sports before they even hit puberty? As parents and coaches we need to take responsibility for this and create a culture for these kids that promotes having fun and developing basic athletic skills before they hit puberty. The following recommendations pertain to preventing burnout and promoting fun in youth sports:
Early Diversification - Avoiding early sports specialization before puberty helps to minimize dropouts, maximize participation, creates positive relationships, develops leadership skills and creates intrinsic motivation by participating in something that is enjoyable. Contrary to popular belief, early specialization does NOT correlate with later success for most sports. In fact, of the 322 athletes invited to the 2015 National Football League Scouting Combine, a whopping 87% of them played MULTIPLE sports in high school.
Focus on Fun - Before the age of 13 youth sports should be focused on developing the basic skills required for athletic development (speed, agility, coordination and balance) and having fun. in 2014, the US olympic committee developed the “American Development Model” which categorizes sport development into 5 categories as follows:
Discover, Learn, and Play (ages 0–12 years)
Develop and Challenge (ages 10–16 years)
Train and Compete (ages 13–19 years)
Excel for High Performance or Participate and Succeed (ages ≥15 years)
Mentor and Thrive (for life)
If you feel that your child is participating in leagues that follow these guidelines then you are in good shape. If not, it’s time for a change.
Recipe for Success: Early Diversification and Moderate Training Levels
If you want to increase the likelihood that your child plays sports at the collegiate level, then for most sports, the answer lies in allowing your child to participate in multiple sports as long as possible. A systemic review of elite athlete specialization studies, revealed that, for most sports, late specialization with early diversification is most likely to lead to elite status. In addition, studies have found that Division 1 NCAA athletes are more likely to have played multiple sports in high school and that their first organized sport was different from their current one.
Intense training in youth athletics creates physiological and psychological concerns. With intense training comes increased injury rates, increased dropout rates, and decreased intrinsic motivation to participate. Rest is essential. A minimum of 1-2 rest days a week is required to decrease risk for overuse injury. In addition, training hours should be kept below the child’s age in years per week. These guidelines can be used to ensure your child is getting an adequate amount of rest.
I do feel that it is important to mention those sports in which early specialization seems to be required in order to succeed at high level. Figure skating, gymnastics, and diving are sports in which early specialization seems to be important. Early specialization is more important in these sports likely because peak performance often occurs before physical development is complete. That being said, it is still important to monitor your child for signs of burnout (physically and mentally), depression, and frequent injury rates and ensure you implement adequate rest and nutrition plans to support healthy development.
Let Them Play!
There are so many benefits when it comes to playing youth sports. So much about life can be learned from youth sport participation. Just look at all the heartwarming movies based on kids playing sports (“The Sandlot”, “Bad News Bears”, and “Little Giants” to name a few). Promoting positive peer relationships, discipline, leadership skills, respect, teamwork, time management skills and healthy physical activity are all benefits to playing youth sports. My fear is that our push to turn kids into elite athletes at a young age is not only excluding many kids from participating in sports at all but it is also taking the fun out of the game. Parents and coaches should be held accountable in creating a youth sport culture that is inclusive and fun while also promoting multi-sport participation, development of basic performance skills and taking into account adequate rest and training levels. Let’s stop trying to make our kids the next Lebron James or Tiger Woods and just let them play!
Brenner JS; American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics. 2016. 138 (3): :e20162148
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