Over use or abuse: Are youth athletes being pushed too far?

If one in five children are going to the ER for treatment related to sport injuries, the question must be asked (Healy 2013). Are we pushing our youngest athletes too far?

In general, it is important for kids to stay active and play, but if it means putting their health at risk it may be time to rethink how we as a society organize youth sports. Many children starting at six are tracked into one sport or another based on preference, size, and/or ability. Not only does this tracking create specialization, but it can also lead to overuse problems and risk of serious injuries.

In total, there is an estimated 45 million children participating in scholastic and community organized youth sport programs in the United States (Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine 2014). Just because of the shear numbers, it is not surprising that the rates of youth sport injuries are so high. Some of the most common injuries include: sprains, fractures, contusions, and concussions. These types of injuries are seen in youth athletes because of a number of factors such as sport specialization, imbalance of strength or joint range of motion, anatomic misalignment, improper footwear, pre-existing conditions, growth cartilage, and intense, repetitive training during grown periods (Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine 2014).

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Interestingly enough, the easiest way to prevent as well as treat any of these injuries is time.

Especially for children, even though their bodies usually heal quickly, there is no reason for why they shouldn’t be able to take the time to rest their bodies. According to the Nationwide Children’s Foundation the best way to treat a child’s injury is with the RICE method of Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (2014). In addition, it is important not to let them get back into full participation until they are completely with out pain.

So what sports are these children are playing? Could limiting the age of participation for specific sports solve this problem?

The sports that seem to cause the most injuries in young children are football, basketball, soccer, and baseball (Healy 2013). Unfortunately, these are also the most popular sports in the United States, so I don’t see them going away or limiting the age of participation any time soon. There is, however, a possibility of limiting specialization.

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It has been noted by a number of researchers that youth participation in specialized sports programs increases with the wealth of individual families (Toporek 2014). As seen in the urbanization of soccer, middle class families are becoming more and more involved in organized youth athletics. In doing so, many parents tend to urge their children into mastering one single sport (Andrews, 1999).

Keeping this research in mind, it has also been found that higher-income families are 68 percent more likely than lower-income families to experience a sport-related injury (Toporek 2014). This can be contributed to the increase in volume of training time that is expected in order to be apart of a single competitive sport. In addition, the wealthier a family is, the more money they have to spend on their children to participate in organized sport programs. In general, competitive sport programs are very expensive and consist of hard work, repetitive actions and very little recovery time to prevent injuries; which may explain this increase in injuries for wealthier youth athletes.

So what’s the counter argument? In the United States athletics is extremely valued. There is a lot of pride that goes into participating in sports as well as being an “athletic supporter.” For this reason, why shouldn’t we start our children young and have them specialize in playing a specific sport? If they can do this early on, then they can become the “best,” get recognized in high school, maybe receive a scholarship for college, and even play professionally!

Although though this plan sounds enticing, I can’t help to think of the long-term injuries that may happen. Think of all the un-reported concussions that occur in football from kids being told that winning the game is more important then their “minor” injury (Go Tigers, movie). What will that do to these young children’s futures? Plus! Think about the knee injuries in female soccer players, and shoulder injuries in sports like swimming and baseball. All of these sports are notorious for serious injures, and it is concerning to think that in possibly 20 to 30 years these children will have early onset arthritis and other problems that are completely preventable from just taking time off to heal properly.

So what can we do about it?

Some research has recently come out that says that although physical activity is instrumental in normal child development, it is actually better for children to spend more time in unstructured free play than organized youth sports (Toporek 2014). In fact, children should spend more than two-times as much time in free-play than organized activities, like sports. With this data, it might finally be time to consider an official time-out from super competitive and time-consuming youth sports, and give these kiddos some rest.






David L. Andrews (1999): Contextualizing suburban soccer: Consumer culture, lifestyle differentiation and suburban America, Culture, Sport, Society, 2:3, 31-53



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