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Competitive youth sports: Training Hard, Too Hard?

Jun 04, 2019 04:20PM ● By Catherine Garrett

For the past several years, youth sports have become increasingly competitive and time-consuming with year-round opportunities on various fields of play. Is there a benefit? What is the cost? (Stock photo)

By Catherine Garrett | [email protected]

This is the first in a series of two articles discussing the challenges of the current trends of competitive youth sports and applying that knowledge towards helpful solutions to Train Hard and Train Smart.

For the past several years, youth sports have become increasingly competitive and time-consuming with year-round opportunities on various fields of play. Is there a benefit? What is the cost? 

Over the next two issues, the City Journals will explore the current trends of competitive youth sports with signing up for year-round options at young ages and specializing in sports early versus trying out multiple sports while looking at the effects of the intense training required that can lead to recurring pain in young athletes and burnout.

Why children play sports

The first thing we need to do with our young athletes, according to Aspen Institute Executive Director Tom Farrey, who authored “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions Of Our Children,” is to make sure this is what the kids want to do. “Youth sports is a wonderful thing. They’re terrific. We just have to understand that we’re dealing with human beings – little human beings – they’re not miniature adults and we need to listen to what they want.”

The number one reason children participate in sports is because it is “fun.” In a study by George Washington University, youth listed 81 definitions of “fun” as social bonds, access to action and coaches treating players with respect. Interestingly, “winning” was the 48th reason and “earning medals” was 67th on the list as far as motivations behind young athletes playing sports.

John O’Sullivan, in an article, “Why Kids Play Sports,” recommends that we let young athletes define their level of enjoyment with sports and continue to listen to their perspective throughout our evaluations of their “sporting path.” “As they get older…you might have to tell them that in order to pursue their goals in a sport, they might have to step it up a notch environment wise,” he said. “But when that time comes, let it be their decision to make the jump. If you force it, you may lose them. When we force kids to try out for a high-commitment, performance-pathway sports team, and all they want is to play and be with friends, they will burn out, lose the love of the game, and quit.”

O’Sullivan also encourages parents to be patient with the varying levels of growth and performance of our children. “Your nine-year-old soccer player who only made the B team is just fine. Your 11-year-old basketball player who isn’t playing AAU is not a lost cause. Every child develops at different ages and on an individual timeline, and your best contribution is to help them fall in love with a sport so that they actually want to play and practice enough to get good at it” He further states, “The greatest athletics-related gift you can give your child is love of sport. They will take it from there.”

As the entire landscape of the competitive youth sports environment has changed over the past decade, the one constant through all of this is: kids play sports to have fun, most stay in sports for many years because they are still having fun and a large percentage have left athletic fields because they are not having fun.

Demands on young athletes

At younger and younger ages, club and accelerated sports leagues options are available which lead youth into spending more time focused on one sport. Aside from the financial burdens that increase at older ages and levels, the intensity of the training for that sport – and sometimes at the exclusion of all other activities – also trends upward. 

Multi-sport athletes also risk overtraining and overuse with different workouts from different coaches. Despite some benefits of avoiding burnout from one sport and developing different skill sets from various sports, a high demand is put on youth’s bodies with minimal recovery time.

This is where the greater cost potentially lies as more and more is being demanded of youth athletes. 

“Where is the research that more is better? I don’t see it,” said Carolyn Billings, Brigham Young University director of Sport Medicine and head athletic trainer. “We are pushing our youth to train more than some of our college and professional athletes, and it is wrong. Under this system we have created with such a desire for prestige and winning, we are doing a real disservice to these kids. Sports used to be such a positive thing, but we’re losing sight of those life lessons.”

George Washington University professor of sports management Mark Hyman said, “The system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids. We no longer value participation. We value excellence.”

That demand on the bodies of those in youth sports is taking its toll with injuries that are up 500-700% from 10 years ago, including severe ones. 

Billings noted that she began her career in 1995 and didn’t see an ACL injury until nine or 10 years later. “Now, I typically don’t see a soccer player who hasn’t had some type of knee injury,” she said. “And those are just some of the results of what’s been happening over the last 15 years.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of young athletes are injured each year with half of those injuries considered preventable. Utah-based Sport Ready co-founder Robin Cecil, a physical therapist of 25 years, said. “Look around. Has an ACL become common? Have you heard your child often complain of pain? Injuries are becoming so common that it is now considered normal. Playing with pain is not normal. Giving our children Tylenol to get them through a game should not be considered normal. The ‘no pain, no gain’ motto was for a different era with different parameters. The pains that hurt at night are typically growing pains, but if it’s pains during the day, we need to address it.” Cecil often finds athletes approaching her asking for help and reporting frequent pain. “We know what causes a lot of what’s going on. We need to first recognize that it is a problem and then find ways to place the child back of the center of their own sports experience.”

Some things to consider

For parents with younger children considering competitive sports:

  • There is not a magic starting age for competitive sports
  • Identify your focus. Are you looking to develop your athlete or win at all costs?
  • Find a system that will allow children to play multiple sports through elementary school.
  • Understand the early specialization sports, such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating have very complex skills that are able to mastered before maturation, and also the late specialization sports (basketball, soccer, field hockey, tennis).
  • Consider children’s interests and match sports to children’s temperament, size and level of commitment
  • Consider the cost

For parents with children already in competitive youth sports

  • Recognize that sports have changed
  • Recommended guidelines are that a child does not compete or train more hours per week than their age
  • Understand that playing multiple sports in the same season when competing in at least one sport at the competitive level leads to greater chances of injury
  • Consider the benefits of taking two months off each year for specialized athletes
  • Ensure that athletes are warming up and cooling down with each training and competition.
  • Ensure that your athlete is hydrate.
  • Understand that you are the child’s best and most invested advocate. Speak up if your child is in a situation of overtraining and/or is dealing with injuries on a regular basis or burnout.
  • Understand your role in caring for and monitor your athlete’s health, wellness and workload or make sure the coaches and clubs they play for are doing so.

(Compiled from sources including the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, John O’ Sullivan, Francois Gazzano, “A Home Team Advantage by Brooke Lench, Sport for Life, Project Play and other health professionals)

The competitive youth sports industry pulls at wallets, time, desires, goals at a financial price tag of upwards of $15 billion with opportunities of accelerated sports leagues and elite traveling teams and the “possible” college scholarship. This is the cost. Young athletes and parents can weigh the benefits and risks involved with the high-level training it takes to get there.

In the July 2019 issue, the City Journals will discuss ways to monitor workload, wellness and injury and burnout to increase the safety of our young athletes within the school and club settings.

Collecting data

If you are concerned about the health of your athlete within the current youth sports system and would like to be included in an injury surveillance project that will be completed through a weekly questionnaire starting on Aug. 1, 2019 and continuing for eight weeks, sign up at or email [email protected] for more information. Males and females, ages 10 to 22 who play any kind of sports at the club, middle school, high school or university levels are welcome to participate in this free-of-charge study. The objective is to gather much-needed data regarding the health of young athletes to assess the current trends within youth sports. The deadline to submit request for participation is Friday, July 26, 2019.