Children around the country are playing organized sports more than ever today. In fact, The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) reports that youth in the country participating in sports went from around 18 million in 1987 to 60 million in 2008. While that’s good news, because of the many benefits that can be gained from keeping them active, there is also a downside that health professionals are beginning to caution parents about – early specialization and overtraining, both of which can become problematic and become detrimental for young athletes.
“There is this notion today that people think kids should only be focused on one sport and train like crazy to become good at it,” explains Coach Sarah Walls, personal trainer and owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc., who is also the strength and conditioning coach for WNBA’s Washington Mystics. “Yet more and more research is showing that at a young age it’s not wise to specialize and risk overtraining. Kids can become better athletes by engaging in a variety of sports.”
In research published in the journal Sports Health, researchers report that sport specialization, which is training in one sport to the exclusion of others, has become increasingly common in young athletes. They advise that sport specialization before the child has reached adolescence may be detrimental, because there is a higher injury rate, increased psychological stress, and it leads to quitting sports at an early age. Further, their research reports that there is no evidence that intense training and specialization at a young age are necessary to achieve elite status.
Here’s what Walls shares with the parents of the young athletes who she works with:
- Great athletes are often the product of well-rounded physical development (kids playing lots of different sports and rotating each season).
- Children involved in sports that are single-sided (like baseball and golf, as examples) should be balancing out the asymmetries that develop by engaging in other sports or a strength/conditioning program designed with those considerations.
- Young athletes who specialize in one sport too early (before age 15) can be/are prone to overuse injuries.
- If a child is experiencing regular aches and pains, they should be given a break from the activity and encouraged to engage in play or a different sport entirely.
- Children are experiencing injuries that previously were only seen in adults – for example ligament tears and tendonitis.
- Early sport specialization problems are compounded by the sedentary and desk-bound nature of our society. This leads to further movement pattern dysfunction, muscle imbalances and, eventually, even more injuries.
- Avoid allowing your child to specialize in one sport before age 15. Trust that well-rounded physical development through a variety of sports and activities will serve your child’s sporting ability and health over time. Ensure your child is maintaining a balanced body by having him/her participate in a sports conditioning program and/or a variety of sports and activities.
“Once parents know the risks of early specialization and overuse injury risks, they usually encourage their child to diversify and cross train,” added Coach Walls. “The problem is that most parents are not aware of these risks. They have been led to believe that their child needs to pick a sport at the age of five and stick with it. When this happens, many kids experience overuse injuries, and they end up being burned out and leaving the sport all together by the time they reach adolescence.”
The NSCA reports that the growth cartilage in children is vulnerable to the stress of repeated microtraumas, which leads to injuries that may be long-lasting. Examples include “Little League elbow.” Some of the symptoms of overtraining include early fatigue during workouts, decreased strength or coordination, faster heart rate with less effort, lower resistance to common illnesses, frequent colds, frequent aches and pains, ongoing muscle soreness, lack of motivation, and fear of competition.
Sarah Walls has more than 15 years experience in coaching and personal training. Owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc, founded in 2007, she offers coaching to develop athletes, adult programs, team training, online coaching, and more. She is also the strength and conditioning coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and has over eight years of experience working as an NCAA D1 strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer. To learn more, visit the site:www.saptstrength.com.
Submitted by Cher Murphy for SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc.