As quarantine restrictions begin to be lifted, we have come to accept that life as we knew it will not be the same.
Change is uncomfortable for everyone and, as a Type A who Needs-to-Plan-My-Entire-Personal-and-Professional-Life orthopedic surgeon, it’s particularly difficult for me.
Rather than wallow in what is lost, I’ve been thinking about what has happened in the past few months and how we can use this experience to become better and stronger for it.
The world of youth sports got knocked down, but it didn’t get knocked out. This hiatus has given us the opportunity to rise and recover and redefine our future and the culture of youth sports.
This forced change–this clean slate–is exactly what youth sports needed. Over the past decade endless studies have come out about the hazards of youth sports. The negatives were crowding out the positives.
Youth sports became about identifying and cultivating elite athletes, the two percent who would get college scholarships, and the fewer still who would turn professional. The rest of the kids were being pushed toward that unrealistic goal. And the pressure was starting so early that seven out of 10 kids now drop out of organized sports by the time they are 13.
As the scales tipped, studies revealed:
- increasing traumas to kids’ physical and mental health
- higher than acceptable burn out rates
- an expanding divide between those who can and cannot afford to participate in youth sports
In 2020, the youth sports community has been given the chance to correct this and protect our young athletes and the sports we love. We have an opportunity to improve children’s health and fitness in a post-COVID era. We can do this by emphasizing:
- TRAINING not competition
- FUN not winning
- DIVERSIFICATION not single sport specialization
- ALL-INCLUSION not all-star identification
Moving forward we must take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves these questions:
- Who has been benefitting from the $17 billion dollar business that is youth sports? The athletes? The coaches? The parents? Travel organizations? Equipment manufacturers?
- How can we work together to redefine “success”? Beyond the scoreboard, what should “winning” look like?
- How do we create a playbook for everyone involved in youth sports so they understand their appropriate roles and new opportunities?
- How can we improve the culture of youth sports and return it to a positive light?
How we take advantage of this opportunity will be pivotal to the future of youth sports. As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, I would gladly trade reconstructing ACLs in the operating room for seeing those kids outside playing.
How should we approach moving forward? Study after study has shown that having one season off per year is beneficial to an athlete’s physical and mental health. COVID 19 has given us that one season. Let’s use this forced time-out to re-evaluate.
10 STEPS TO HEALTHIER YOUTH SPORTS
To create healthier kids and a better culture, here are 10 things I propose we do before our kids return to sports.
- Assess each athlete’s mental readiness to return to sports. Ask them:
- How worried/distressed are you about returning to sports due to the break?
- How likely are you to avoid returning to sports after this break?
- How ready are you to cope with the stress involved with your sport?
- Assess each athlete’s physical readiness to return to sports by collecting this information:
- How many hours has each athlete worked on strength training?
- What is their overall strength at the return of sports? Push Ups? Sit Ups? Squats? Lunges?
- How many times has each athlete gone running? or done an activity that elevated their heart rate for over 30minutes?
- How many minutes can each athlete run at the return of sports?
- Initiate injury prevention programs into every sporting session. The Orthopaedic Institute for Children at UCLA provides a guide coaches can use to warm-up, stretch and strengthen the stabilizing muscles around the knee joint for all sports that involve running and jumping and this one to prepare a young athlete to return to pitching.
- Discuss alternating one sports each season and celebrating the multi-sport athlete. Not multiple sports at once, but multiple throughout the year.
- Evaluate limiting hours playing sports per week. Young athletes should limit their hours of sports participation per week to their year in age, maxing at 16 hours/week at 16 years old.
- Insure 1-2 days/week of physical and mental rest from sport
- Discuss of planning for taking one season off for free play
- Improve pre- and post-practice stretching and strengthening routines
- Limit to one team participation per season
- Limit participation in showcase style events. Numerous studies report higher than normal injury rates in these types of events
Together we can save and improve youth sports! If you want to be part of the change, feel free to reach out to me and the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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