‘Parenting is easy. Put the kid in as many sports in possible, and they won’t have time to get into trouble.’ - Steve Rogers (my old man)
While possibly over-simplified, I think he was onto something in more ways than one. Participation in sports has many proven benefits that can positively impact a child’s physical and emotional self, and can help them build a foundation for a lifestyle of healthy habits. Kids who play sports display lower rates of obesity and diabetes, improved bone health and lean muscle mass, and higher levels of confidence and self-esteem. Young athletes are less likely to get involved with illicit drugs or to become pregnant, all while experiencing improved academic performance. Kids who play sports also develop important social skills, learning how to communicate effectively with peers and authority figures. With all of these positives, we can easily gain an appreciation for the value of involving our young ones in sports from an early age.
But what we are seeing in the last decade has been a marked drop in regular sports activity in our youth, particularly among 6-12 year olds1. This trend is accompanied by rising numbers of overuse injuries and burnout rates in the kids who do participate2. In a society that places a high value on ‘winning’ and being the best at what you do, kids are facing increased pressure (both internal and external) to compete at high levels for high stakes. The desire for more focus and intensity at younger and younger ages can quickly get out of hand with college scholarships and some remote potential of turning pro on the line. Up to 50% of sport-related injuries in children and adolescents are due to overuse rather than acute events (with rates as high as 63-68% reported for sports with cyclic movement patterns like swimming3 and running4), while burnout or overreaching rates can be as high as 30-35%17. These types of occurrences should be viewed as completely preventable if the associated risk factors are addressed5.
While we will always have to assume a certain level of risk when playing sports, it should be the responsibility of everyone in the loop, from coaches and parents to the kids, to take the necessary steps to limit the risk wherever possible, so that the athlete can fully realize all the amazing benefits that go along with a sustainable and fulfilling sports experience. I want to take the time break down some of the major risk factors and discuss how a modified approach can not only effectively address injury and burnout rates, but also improve long term performance potential.
Lack of properly structured strength and conditioning programs
The past concerns surrounding children’s participation in formal strength training has been thoroughly addressed in the literature6-11, with clear conclusions being made on the benefits of regular strength training for even pre-pubertal children. The important distinction to make here is that ‘strength’ training in this demographic is less about morphological changes such as muscle fiber hypertrophy, and more about providing a safe environment for the young athletes to build motor control and kinesthetic awareness through a variety of movement patterns. They can get ‘stronger’ purely through neurological development, and it is this strength and confidence in basic movement patterns that will build the foundation for the development of more complex skills and motor patterns.
In fact, strength and motor control should remain the basis of any program even after the adolescent growth spurt, due to the large positive influence that these characteristics have on injury prevention12,13 and their impact on other sport specific qualities like speed, power, agility, and endurance. A common but flawed approach in current strength and conditioning programs would be to place a premature focus on one of these secondary qualities, at the expense of producing sufficient levels of strength and control. Adding intensity or complexity should only be done after the foundation has been established, and when ordered properly the other qualities will benefit as well. For instance, a stronger athlete will be able to produce greater ground force during running, increasing peak speed. An athlete’s ability to produce explosive power or apply force to an external load is largely dependent on levels of maximal strength14. Improvements in agility, which relies on change of direction speed and cognitive function/reaction time, will be easier to come by for an athlete with a large foundation of functional movement and motor control.
Endurance athletes, or those who need to improve aerobic capacity to excel at their sport, will also benefit greatly from strength training, as increases in lean muscle mass and bone density will help build the mechanical resilience necessary to withstand the nature and volume of training needed to improve their endurance. Additionally, improvements in neuromuscular strength have been shown to benefit running and cycling economy, providing a direct impact on endurance performance. Accessory movements with a focus on antagonistic muscles and neuromuscular training programs to improve coordination and control can also help address the high rate of overuse injuries common in endurance sports.
While strength and conditioning programs can lower injury risk and increase performance, a major source of preventable overuse injuries is the volume and intensity of the actual sport participation. Long seasons, daily practices, and tournaments or other multi-day competitions all add up to lots of physical and emotional stress. With an incredibly low percentage of young athletes progressing to higher levels in their sport15, we need to be more conscious of the risk/reward equation and ask ourselves if this intensive approach is really worth the cost. Limiting weekly/monthly/yearly participation time in a sport, placing strict limits on sport-specific repetitive movements, and enforcing scheduled rest periods or off-seasons are some simple, concrete ways that we can begin to address this area of concern.
The desire to specialize in a single sport as early as possible is increasingly prevalent, and also understandable from the surface. Get in as many hours of practice as you can, and you’ll get better (assuming you’re practicing correctly). There are sports that require early specialization due to the young age of elite level competition (some examples include gymnastics, figure skating, swimming, and diving). But is early specialization really the best route to expert skill development in all cases, especially when factoring in the associated risks of overuse injuries and sport burnout? A very compelling argument against early specialization shows that elite level athletes typically had a broader range of sports experience in their developing years, in both structured and unstructured environments, when compared with intermediate or novice athletes16, and that this exposure could have been a driving factor in their later development and focus. So their early exposure to lots of different athletic outlets helped them develop their physical and mental toolkit, which they then put to use when they were mature and had developed physically enough to specialize. This sequence of events is critical to long term progress and, ultimately, fulfillment.
Definitions of burnout or overreaching vary widely, thus impacting the ability to collect accurate data while also leaving us without concrete answers to how to address the problem. One of the best explanations I’ve seen states that burnout results from ‘the development of uni-dimensional self-conceptualization and lack of control’18. Basically, an athlete places all of their value and self-worth solely on their success/failure in their sport. You can see how easily this would lead to disenchantment with that particular sport and why continuing to pursue it is no longer viewed as ‘fun’. Kyle’s post addressed some ways to expand on our self-concept as athletes, so what I’d like to address here are some ways that we can help apply those concepts to our young athletes.
- Provide them a sense of agency - They need to know that they are an active part of the process, that their input and feedback matter greatly and that their enjoyment of the experience is the ultimate goal.
- Ensure the majority of practice sessions are focused on skill development over competition/winning.
- If working with a group of similarly aged athletes, be sensitive to differing levels of development and training age and be prepared to individualize training as needed. Two young athletes of the same chronological age playing the same sport might require vastly different approaches to training based off of any number of individual factors, and ensuring that their training is appropriate for their individual level of physical and cognitive development will go a long way to ensuring the athlete stays interested and motivated in the sport.
At Training Think Tank we believe deeply in providing our athletes with an approach that maximizes their longevity and fulfillment in their sport of choice. This bias resonates even more when it comes to young athletes who require more guidance and structure than adults, and who should be able to look forward to a lifetime of healthy athletic activity. Instead of treating them like little adults, we need to ensure that we give proper credit to the unique concerns that come with young athletes, and help them realize their goals without ignoring the obvious risks.
- Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine
- Baxter-Jones A, Maffulli N, Helms P. Low injury rates in elite athletes. Arch Dis Child. 1993;68:130–132.
- Tenforde AS, Sayres LC, McCurdy ML, et al. Overuse injuries in high school runners: lifetime prevalence and prevention strategies. PM R.2011;3:125–131.
- National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: Prevention of Pediatric Overuse Injuries
- Baker D, Mitchell J, Boyle D, Currell S, Wilson G, Bird SP, O'Connor D, Jones J. Resistance training for children and youth: A position stand from the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA). 2007
- Behm DG, Faigenbaum AD, Flak B, Klentrou P. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology position paper: Resistance training in children and adolescents. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 33: 547–561, 2008
- Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ, Jeffreys I, Micheli LJ, Nitka M, Rowland TW. Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. J Strength Cond Res 23: S60–S79, 2009
- Lloyd RS, Brewer C, Faigenbaum AD, Jeffreys I, Moody J, Myer GD, Oliver JL, Pierce K, Stone MH. United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association position statement on youth resistance training. Prof Strength Cond J
- Pierce KC, Brewer C, Ramsey MW, Byrd R, Sands WA, Stone ME, Stone MH. Youth resistance training. Prof Strength Cond J 10: 9–23, 2008
- Stratton G, Jones M, Fox KR, Tolfrey K, Harris J, Maffulli N, Lee M, Frsotick SP. BASES position statement on guidelines for resistance exercise in young people. J Sports Sci 22: 383–390, 2004
- Myer GD, Faigenbaum AD, Chu DA, et al. Integrative training for children and adolescents: techniques and practices for reducing sports-related injuries and enhancing athletic performance. Phys Sports Med. 2011:39;74–84.
- Faigenbaum AD, Myer GD. Resistance training among young athletes: Safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med 44: 56–63, 2010.
- Baker, D. 10-year changes in upper body strength and power in elite professional rugby league players: The effect of training age, stage, and content. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(2): 285-292. 2013
- Abernethy B, Baker J, Côté J. Transfer of pattern recall skills may contribute to the development of sport expertise. Appl Cognit Psychol. 2005;19:705–718.
- Matos NF, Winsley RJ, Williams CA. Prevalence of nonfunctional overreaching/overtraining in young English athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43:1287–1294.
- Gould D. Intensive sport participation and the prepubescent athlete: competitive stress and burnout. In: Cahill BR, Pearl AJ, eds. Intensive Participation in Children’s Sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1993:19–38.
- Lloyd, R.S. and J.L.Oliver. The Youth Physical Development Model: a new approach to long term athletic development. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(3):37-43. 2012