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Keeping Kids in the Game by Playing Them

Keeping Kids in the Game by Playing Them

According to a participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, over one million (1,085,272) high school students, including 1,954 girls, played on their school’s football team in the 2015 to 2016 schoolyear. That’s a lot.

Other findings: 546,428 boys and 429,380 girls played basketball; 440,322 boys and 381,529 girls played soccer; over one million boys and girls participated in outdoor track and field; almost a million played baseball and softball; and over 800,000 played volleyball and tennis. Swimming, wrestling, golf and cross-country also had impressive numbers.

It’s truly wonderful so many young people are active and engaged in building healthier bodies, learning about teamwork and forging friendships that come with participating in high school sports. But, (why is there always a but?) far too many of them, from the age of seven on, are focusing on one and only one sport.

It seems many parents and coaches have the mistaken idea that one-sport specialization will make the child a super-star athlete when he or she gets older. According to a study in Strength & Conditioning Journal, that’s not the case, and young athletes who specialize in one sport are risking repetitive use injuries that could permanently sideline them.

Another study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes who exceeded expert guidelines by competing in their sport more than eights months of the year and more hours per week than their age—a 16-year-old athlete participating for more than 16 hours/week—were more likely to report an injury of any type in the previous year. And serious overuse injuries were common among young athletes who played for excessive hours a week and had little free time to enjoy other physical activities.

A third study, in Physician & Sports Medicine, looked at how specialization was associated with injury patterns: The researchers found children ages 7 to 18 who were specializing in individual sports, started at a younger age (around 11) and put in more hours a week (almost 12) than kids who specialized in a team sport. More than 44 percent of the individual sportsters experienced overuse injuries, while 32 percent of the team players did. And respectively 23 and almost 12 percent of those injuries were characterized as serious. Overall, says the study’s lead researcher, “The results of this study provide further evidence of the relationship between early sport specialization, increased sport training volume and injuries.”

The risks of repetitive use injury
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, kids’ tendons, ligaments and bones grow unevenly, making younger athletes more susceptible to muscle, tendon and growth plate injuries from repetitive stress. When growth plates—areas of developing cartilage where bone growth occurs—are injured, normal bone growth can be disrupted. While throwing injuries of the elbow and shoulder are prevalent in baseball players, overall the most common overuse injuries are to the knee and foot.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association adds, “Diversification in sports at an early age has the potential to provide stimuli so that a child’s body can adapt and develop multiple motor skills that may crossover between sports. Only once the mental, physical and social aspects of a child are fully developed can specialization be considered.”

Your game plan
Introduce your children to a wide variety of activities and sports. Teach exercises such as skipping rope that build footwork—a skill that can be used in many sports. Pay attention to what’s fun and engaging for them at each stage and age. Keep pressure off as your child discovers what suits his/her interests and abilities. Your goal is a physically fit, mentally sharp, happy kid.

If coaches and travel teams pressure your child to commit to excessive time and practice, first talk to the coach and school about a healthier approach and then encourage your child to find alternative ways to enjoy that and other sports.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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