The following article was originally posted in the Piedmont Parenting section of The Gainesville Times and The Fauquier Times.
Recently I performed an athletic evaluation on a 12-year-old soccer athlete who plays on an elite travel soccer team. As one of his team’s best players, and an ace at corner kicks, this young man rarely comes off the field during a game. He came limping in to see me on a Monday morning and was clearly injured. The injury to his hip flexor muscle on his dominant kicking leg had surfaced during a weekend tournament where his team played four intensely competitive soccer games within 36 hours.
During the evaluation his father asked me if I thought he’d be able to play the following weekend in the team’s final tournament of the season. My answer: “The kid can’t walk. I think we both know that he’s not playing for at least 2-3 weeks.”
Now, I’m not a soccer guru by any means, but I watched the World Cup. The very best athletes that the soccer world has to offer played in a 90-100 minute game on a Tuesday and then didn’t play again until Sunday. In European professional soccer, the players are off 10 days before another intense match. Sure they practice and train in the weight room, but as far as game intensity, 10-days between matches. Yet, for some reason we expect a 12 year-old to play on 3-4 hours rest? It just never has made much sense to me.
It’s not just the big weekend tournaments that are tough on our young athletes; it’s also the year-round participation in the same sport that really can take a toll on our kids. All too often, they are also playing on two different teams during the same season (school and club). Parents quite often think, “They’re young, they can take it! I did it when I was their age!” The fact is, youth sports have changed drastically over the last 20-30 years. It’s just not the same. The intensity has increased dramatically, especially in the travel organizations. The coaches are more demanding. The practices are longer and more intense and unfortunately spent mostly on technique and little to no time on conditioning or strength training. Frequently, the games are played on back-to-back days and the competitive level of play has increased significantly. One of the biggest developments of youth sports in the last 10 years is that too many of our athletes have chosen a sport to specialize in by the time they’re 11 or 12.
It’s a recurring theme with young athletes. They start specializing in one sport during their preadolescent years and the overuse injuries start piling up. The number of athletes coming in for our “Return-to-Play Training” is on the rise; most of them are overuse injuries. What’s the common link between these injuries? In most cases it the increased emphasis on year round sports and sport specialization.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that overuse injuries from sports specialization is responsible for 50% of all athletic injuries. That’s a big number and the primary reason for the increase in sports medicine focused orthopedic clinics.
Think about it. When you were a kid; the only time you went to see a doctor for an athletic injury was when you broke a bone or sprained an ankle. Now kids see specialized sports medicine doctors for a variety of injuries including; knee tendonitis, strained hamstrings, torn hip flexors, strained lower backs, hip bursitis, plantar fasciitis, strained rotator cuffs and elbow tendonitis that can too often lead to Tommy John surgery a few years down the road. Even some concussions can be attributed to a fatigued athlete that loses control of his body doing basic movements then collides with another player.
If we can agree that that year-round sports specialization is causing a high percentage of injuries: let’s consider the driving forces behind how we got here.
Coaches: First of all, I’m a coach and I think most coaches have our athlete’s well being in mind. Most of them get paid very little and bring an extreme passion for their sport. I’m a competitive guy and realize that sometimes our egos get involved and winning becomes the most important thing. I get that, but what about time-off for these kids? Is one more tournament going to put this team into the elite level? What if the team was given 2 months off per year instead of 2-4 weeks? Are these athletes going to forget how to throw, catch or kick a ball in 60 days? I highly doubt it.
The professional baseball players that I train take 2 months off from throwing and hitting and 1-month off from strength and conditioning when their season ends. They tell me that after a 7-month long grinding season, their bodies need time for healing and I agree. But coaches sometimes get anxious and think they should be doing more to get an advantage. What about having athletes that are hungry to play? With some well-needed rest, athletes start to miss their teammates, they miss the games, and they miss competing and they’re excited to return. In the sport of basketball, AAU coaches dangle athletic scholarships to kids in order to get kids to specialize. On the positive side, the skill level of the younger age is increasing and more ninth graders are making the JV teams in high schools, especially in the sports of volleyball and basketball. But as coaches, we need to recognize when too much is in fact, too much.
Parents: With the rising cost of college tuition, parents are investing more time and more money into getting their kids on the best travel teams in hopes of earning an athletic scholarship down the road. It’s funny, but there is much more academic scholarship money available then there is athletic scholarship money available at most 4-year institutions.
Some parents actually feel guilty that unless they put their kid in club sports the kid won’t feel loved. Really? Believe me it happens. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s about bragging rights at the local country club or at the water cooler with coworkers. Do you think driving and flying these kids all over the country is how you want to spend every weekend? You may think so, but what about the siblings that have no interest but are dragged along anyway? Too often, quality family time is sacrificed to the sport, and that is a shame.
Athletes: What drives sports specialization with the majority of young athletes on a personal level is twofold.
1. They’ve found something that they are pretty good at and love the fact that they’re having success. There is nothing wrong with that. I love an activity that gives kids a vehicle for increasing confidence in all aspects of their life.
2. The second is the social aspect of sport. Some athletes join a club team because their friends play on that team or that team has all of the cool kids on it. An abundance of travel teams can really lead to kids playing and training at the club sport level when they really should be playing recreational sports or playing in their back yard with their brothers and sisters. Especially in change-of-direction sports like lacrosse and soccer, our young athletes are incurring bigger injuries like torn ACL’s. We frequently see young females come to us post-surgery to get ready to play again. In some cases, for the well being of the athlete, I recommend changing to straight ahead sports like swimming or track. Most athletes are NOT superstars and they specialize too early causing them to not find their real niche in sports.
Media: It’s easy to blame the media for a lot of things these days and sometimes its overdone; but in today’s world of 24-hour sports coverage, televised stories of young athletes gaining fame through athletic success tend to raise the bar competitively for everyone involved. The success of these young superstars serves as an inducement to budding young athletes leading to even more sports specialization at an even younger age.
Although there have not been enough scientific studies done regarding early specialization and its effects on our young athletes, I do have some recommendations that you can use to help your young athletes remain successful, happy and injury free.
1. Parents you are in control. Sometimes you have to go against your child’s wishes and coach’s demands in order to do what’s best for your young athlete. Evaluate the expectations of the club team and weigh them against other family, school and faith obligations before committing to play for a team.
2. Don’t let your child specialize too early. High school sophomores are where most athletes should start to specialize and if they still like playing two sports, by all means let them. Early specialization will eliminate all but one sport from an athlete and some they may never find their niche sport and could regret it later in life.
3. Evaluate the coaches. Are they qualified to coach your son or daughter and do they truly care about the kids and their well being? Stick around for the practices and watch. Do they only work on technical skills? Are they doing any conditioning? Do they discuss eating right, or doing strength training to prepare their bodies for the rigor of the sport?
4. Know when to say when. Recognize when your young athlete is beginning to break down physically, mentally and emotionally and get them some well-needed rest. If they start complaining about pain, don’t ignore it or tell them to play through it. Ask questions. Some pain is due to fatigue, but pain is often an indicator or injury, overuse or strain.
5. Pay attention to your athlete’s recovery. Providing good sound nutritional strategies like drinking half your bodyweight in ounces of water every day and eating only minimally processed foods, combined with maintaining disciplined sleeping patterns (at least 8 hours per night) are essential to keeping your child healthy and performing his best throughout his young career.
6. Understand the risks and warning signs of heat related illness and concussions. “When in doubt sit them out.” I love this quote because it says it all. If you suspect your young athlete is having concussion symptoms sit them out until a physician can see them. Recurring concussions tend to cause the most damage. During extreme heat conditions, athletes need a break every 15 minutes. Get them out of the sun and drinking plenty of water.
7. Seek out the best strength and conditioning program you can find to supplement your athlete’s sports. A program that not only conditions athletes, but also teaches them how to take care of their bodies. A program that will build up their strength and endurance to better ensure they can endure the demands of their sport. This is especially important for change of direction sports like soccer, lacrosse and football. The best injury prevention program is a really good strength and conditioning program.
The trend of year-round participation and early sports specialization is not necessarily going to change by me writing this article, but my hope is that you will consider your young athletes health, not only today, but what will their body be like when they are 40 years-old. Since I work with athlete populations and adult populations, I have realized that the injuries that we sustain as young people tend to catch up to us down the road. By the way, the 12-year-old that I mentioned at the beginning of the article is fine now. He just needed some strength training and some well-deserved time off!
Colby Schreckengost is owner/director of training at Next Level Fitness & Performance in Haymarket, which specializes in Sports Performance for Athletes and Life-Changing Body Transformation for Adults. Next Level trains over 600 athletes per year from beginners to professionals and over 300 adult clients. Colby holds a BS and MS and is a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Tulsa. He is a certified personal trainer and Sports Nutritionist. He also holds certifications with the Titleist Performance Institute and is a certified Functional Movement Screen Specialist. For more information on getting started at Next Level, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703.754.0161.