There was a time, not so long ago, when the most respected athletes were the three sport, letterman jacket athletes. It was considered more impressive to be involved in multiple sports than to excel at just one.
We need to get back to this multi-sport mindset to save our young athletes’ bodies and minds from injury and burnout. We need to refocus our children on becoming better all around athletes and steer away from early sport or position specialization.
Significant evidence has emerged that sport specialization is associated with an increased risk of overuse injury in youth athletes. An athlete’s gender, the sport they play, and the amount of time they play all influence the risk of overuse injury.
Early specialization and playing more than eight months per year are associated with overuse injury in repetitive sports such as baseball, tennis, soccer and volleyball. Because volleyball and soccer are popular sports for young female athletes, parents of girls should take particular note of this.
WHAT THEY PLAY, HOW MUCH THEY PLAY
Dr. Eric Post is the co-author of a recent report that connects specific sports and gender to overuse injuries. A member of PRiSM, a research organization that specializes in multispecialty research in pediatric sports medicine, he said parents should be aware of the risks of specialization in particular sports as well as the amount of time their child is participating in that sport.
“Some easy recommendations to keep in mind would be no more than eight months per year in a single sport, and no more hours per week than the athlete’s age in all organized sports,” he said.
So, for example, a 16-year-old should participate in organized sports no more than 16 hours per week, and a 10-year-old should only play 10 hours per week. These guidelines should be adhered to whatever sports your child plays. The total time should include practices and games.
WHAT THE TEENS TOLD US
Teenaged female basketball players surveyed for the study reported four times as many injuries as male basketball players. One reason for the increase in reported injuries by teenaged girls is the amount of time they play.
“The sport volume that young specialized female athletes are taking part in is off the charts,“ said Dr. Post. “For whatever reason, youth female athletes are more likely than boys to play on club teams and to participate in a high number of competitions year-round.”
He sees an attitude across youth sports that views more training as always being better, and this is heightened among girls.
“I think there needs to be a shift in mindset away from trying to cram in as many games as possible towards training smarter, not harder,” he said. “This includes proper periodization and time off throughout the year.”
CULTURAL STEREOTYPES, CHANGING BODIES
The pressure to succeed in a sport at all costs doesn’t help.
Young boys and girls face different stereotypes and expectations when it comes to expressing emotions and pain. Young girls are seen as emotional and needy, while young boys think they have to be tough and resilient. These stereotypes hinder both genders in the way people respond to young females with injuries and limit young boys desire to admit to pain or injury.
Additionally, girls and boys mature at different times, especially in the 10-to-14-year-old age range. Girls experience puberty on average two years before boys, and injury rates for girls have been directly correlated with the growth and hormone cycles.
It is essential for parents and adults who work with young athletes to have an understanding of how teens mature, both physiologically and psychologically. This knowledge will give coaches, athletic trainers, doctors and parents the tools to accurately hear what the athlete is telling them about their bodies and their emotions and empower young athletes to report injuries without fear of judgment or reprisal.
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