Youth Sports: Too Much Too Early?

February 12, 2007
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Variety may be the spice of life, but according to sports and health officials, it may also be the key to keeping children interested in youth sports and safe while they play.

While the current trend seems to be to get children involved in a single sport at an early age, Dr. Aryn Johnson, who specializes in family practice and sports medicine at Metro Health, said that trend is one reason he is seeing more and more over-use injuries and stress fractures in children.

Johnson said that while there are no particular sports he feels should be avoided because of risk or danger to a child’s health, parents should keep in mind that children need a rest time of a few weeks to a few months to break up their training or playing time to help prevent over-use injuries, he said.

If children are over-trained early on, they may not reach their potential in sports later, creating the very problem that the training is meant to prevent, he said. One way to prevent over-training specific muscles is by letting children play multiple sports or multiple positions.

“That’s actually beneficial because they will end up using different types of muscles for different sports,” he said. “It really helps reduce those muscle-use injuries.”

To determine what sports are right for their child, Johnson said parents should consider the child’s interest as well as height, weight and body type. The age at which a child begins to play sports may be determined by the parents or by the sports league or organization, as well as by the maturity of the child.

“The message I usually give to parents is: Let the kids pick their sport,” he said. “Try not to push them into one sport.”

John Roberts, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said though there are many benefits to youth sports, a study by the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University has shown that 80 percent to 90 percent of youth who have participated in an organized sports program stop playing by the time they reach high school.

“We have concerns that something is happening to boys and girls prior to their entry into the interscholastic program,” he said.

Roberts said he doesn’t know if the problem is that there is “too much, too soon” or perhaps too much pressure and emphasis by parents or coaches on winning, but he is concerned about students being turned off from sports. He said that while parents tend to think kids are more likely to make the team if they start a sport earlier, there is not much evidence to support that.

One problem Roberts has observed is when a student who matured early has been exceptional in youth sports but then does not remain exceptional after peers catch up in maturity.

“Those who mature earlier are the ones that have the greatest success in youth level sports. That early advantage disappears for most children when they get to be high school age,” he said.

Roberts agreed that parents should encourage their children to keep their options open and participate in a variety of sports and activities.

“I do think that keeping options open is the way to prepare for high school sports. To devote one’s early childhood to one sport only is a dangerous limitation if you’re interested in playing sports for a number of years,” he said. “It’s just too limiting to do only one thing to the exclusion of others too early in life. It not only limits your sports experience but it could be a limitation on your life experience.”

Hugh Calloway, president of the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association, said while long hours at the rink may make some children better athletes, it may sour others on the sport.

“Some kids have a true passion and they could do it,” he said. “Some kids, you have to take their equipment away so they don’t keep training. … On the other hand, some kids, after they hit a certain point, it isn’t fun anymore. There’s a delicate balance, and I think a lot of it comes back to the parents.”

To help student athletes achieve that balance, Calloway stresses to parents the fact that children need to be having fun.

“If they’re complaining about coming to practice every day, something’s happening there,” he said. “Don’t make them lift weights and run laps, because it’s turning them off from all the other stuff.”

If young athletes want to play a variety of sports, Calloway said they should be encouraged to do so. To encourage children to stay active while not playing hockey and to prevent injuries, Calloway said his organization offers off-season strength and agility training.

Tom Grothause, president of the Grand Rapids Area Soccer Association, agreed with Calloway that a balance is important.

“The entire sports community is pushing kids to try and become a soccer player from (age) 10 on,” he said. “We feel strongly kids should be balanced in the sports they play.”

Grothause said the soccer association encourages this by limiting the number of practices per week and not penalizing children if they miss a practice because of another sport.

While soccer and hockey associations may encourage young athletes to be active in other sports, gymnastics is a sport that demands many hours of training for young, competitive gymnasts. Though the sport has a hefty time commitment, caution is still exercised to protect the athletes.

“We don’t push them any harder than what they want to push themselves,” said Justin Wolford, head coach of the artistic girls’ team for Aerials and Baranis Gymnastics Center in northeast Grand Rapids, and sometimes not even that far. “The most dangerous part comes in when an athlete is pushed beyond what their skill level is.”

Wolford said while children ages 4 through 18 participate in gymnastics, the time commitment and discipline level varies from weekly tumbling classes at a young age to higher-level gymnasts who spend between 12 and 20 hours a week at the gym.

Wolford said there are always some parents who expect their child to be the next Olympic star, but the child may not be capable of that level or have that much interest.

“If their child is struggling, we tell them that they’re struggling,” he said. “With the younger girls, I tell them this is something they may be interested in now; if they stay interested through the whole thing, that’s excellent.”

Keeping the sport in perspective is an important element, Grothause agreed. Parents and players need to recognize that they are not necessarily going to become a professional athlete.

“Most kids get out of youth sports sometime between 10 and 13; a lot of it’s because they have just had poor experiences,” he said.

Despite the risk of having a poor experience, Calloway said there can be many benefits for children who play sports.

“What we do in hockey is just the catalyst for making these things happen. We’re teaching life lessons,” he said. “Really what you’re doing is you’re trying to train them how to be good adults and have a good work ethic.”

Grothause said some of the obvious benefits of a sport such as soccer, beyond the exercise, is the experience of teamwork, interacting with others, and learning from coaches and competition. It also gives children an opportunity to meet students outside their school district and gain a larger network of friends. Sports also help a young person’s mental development as they learn how to work through challenges, he said.

“As they grow up, as they play, I think it helps them with their self-esteem and confidence.”     HQX

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