carter-runAs a father, coach and physical therapist working in a sports medicine environment, I am all too familiar with youth injuries. While we can not prevent every injury, I do believe we need to do everything possible to keep our young athletes out of harm’s way. In today’s ultra competitive society, parents are faced with pressure to “keep up” or fall behind.

Contrary to what research and real life has to say about it, organizations and coaches who want to win now tell parents and players you need to choose one sport at an early age if you want to be the best.  I see the club fees that organizations charge, the emotional heartbreak of not making the top tier teams and the grind of all the “extra” training sessions for skill work, speed training, etc. that athletes endure.

Gone are the days where just playing for your school team is enough to garner attention at the next level.  It seems as if athletes must play in AAU, clubs, travel teams or showcase opportunities to stand out.  It is apparent to me as if we have become hyper focused on training our children to obtain a scholarship at such an early age.  Some of the things I hear parents say illustrate to me their are pushing their children very hard to meet these expectations.  The idea that sports should be fun for young kids seems to be lost on the coaches and parents in many cases.

My 9 y/o son (picture above running the ball) told me one reason he does not want to play Pop Warner football next Fall is because of all the practice time required.  We practiced 5 days per week in August, followed by two hour practices 3 nights per week and a Saturday game during the regular season.  He loves the game and was one of the best players on his team, but the time and exhaustive training simply wore him out.  So, he says he wants to play soccer next Fall instead.  I told him this was fine as he needs to be the one that wants to play - not me telling him to play.  He also plays basketball in the Winter and soccer in the Spring.

As a parent, I want to encourage others to listen to their kids and put their own goals and interests aside.  We should not try to live vicariously through our kids on the court or field.  Sports should not be work for young people, and adults should not care more about the game than the participants at a young age.  As coaches and medical professionals, we need to do everything in our power to promote health and  life balance for young people.

What does the literature have to say about sports specialization?  There are several articles, but I wanted to highlight a few below:

Female adolescent athletes have an increased risk of anterior knee painJ. Sport Rehabil. 2015

Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: - AJSM 2015

Here is a position paper from the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA)

NATA Position Statement: Prevention of Pediatric Overuse Injuries

An finally from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Overuse Injuries, Overtraining and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes

My older son is a left-handed pitcher on his travel team.  I am a co-head coach and handle all the pitchers on our team.  I have coached him since he was 9 because I love spending time with my boys through coaching, in addition to the fact I want to safeguard his development and prevent unnecessary overuse injuries.  I count pitches for all our players and reinforce that their long term health is far more important than winning a single game or tourney.  My parents appreciate this perspective.

I see far too many baseball pitchers in my practice that suffer from shoulder and elbow pain.  I also see lots of female soccer players and runners with stress reactions, ITB syndrome and anterior knee pain.  I feel the intensive training, weekend tourney formats and year-round focus with too little down time are contributing factors in these cases.  I continue to look for ways to educate families and coaches to adopt best training practices and thereby lessen their trips to the ATC or PT clinic.  Young athletes are not wise enough to look out for themselves, so we as parents, coaches, trainers and allied health professionals must do it for them.

Keys to protecting our youth athletes:

  • We must encourage kids to have fun
  • Need to monitor practice/training volume and intensity
  • Watch for signs of overtraining and burnout
  • Encourage kids to play multiple sports as long as they can
  • Mandate 2-3 months off if an an athlete plays 1 sport year-round
  • Advocate for proper rest and recovery
  • Focus on age specific and appropriate fitness and conditioning
  • Educate parents, athletes and coaches how to spot the early signs of an overuse injury

I hope you will join me in working to prevent overuse injuries.  We need to examine our sports programming with a critical eye and advocate for the health of our athletes over the dollars and desire to win at all costs.  Our best athletes don’t reach their full potential until they mature physically, so we need to safeguard their health and allow them to get there while enjoying their time along the way.  A great website for parents is Stop Sports Injuries - click here to check it out.