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Competitive youth sports: Looking at ways to train hard and train smart

Jul 03, 2019 03:10PM ● By Catherine Garrett

Anna Wright cuts the ball back during the Hillcrest High School girls soccer season last fall. Hillcrest coaches utilized sports science during the season to monitor player workloads in an effort to prevent injury and increase performance. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles discussing the current trends of competitive youth sports and ways to monitor workload, injury and burnout and wellness. Read the first article here

The cost of youth sports over the past couple of decades has continually risen from a financial standpoint. During that same time span, a concern of equal importance has risen with the amount of injuries our young athletes are incurring from the intense trainings and competitions they are being exposed to in year-round competitive leagues and multi-sport and same-season situations.

In the June 2019 issue, we discussed the changing landscape of competitive youth sports that have included high-level training and accelerated sports leagues at younger ages. Injuries have also skyrocketed throughout the past decade with the ever-increasing demand on young athletes’ bodies.

In this issue, the City Journals will explore how to function within that system by improving communication between athletes, parents, coaches and trainers and understanding and using the evidence provided within the sports science and medical professions to monitor workload and wellness and avoid burnout and unnecessary injuries. These efforts can help young athletes be individually attended to so they can be on their field of play to keep participating in the sports they love by training hard and smart, while staying healthy.


In “The Relationship Between Training Load and Injury, Illness and Soreness,” Michael K. Drew said, “Quantification and monitoring of training load and athlete’s responses to it is imperative to maximize the likelihood of optimal athletic performance at a specific time and place. The response to a load stimulus applied to an athlete can either be positive (increased physical capacity) or negative (injury, illness and overtraining or underperformance).”

Monitoring workload of young athletes involves ongoing education and communication among the athletes themselves, their parents, coaches and trainers. Francois Gazzano, a strength and conditioning and performance coach, said we make common mistakes concerning the workload of our young athletes.

Common workload mistakes for young athletes

  • We Increase It Too Quickly – particularly following an off-season of minimal activity and a return from injury
  • The Weekly Amount Is Too Much – indicating that the weekly amount needs to be less in hours than an athlete’s age
  • We Don’t Adjust That Workload Daily – which enhances the need for careful monitoring and having purpose in repetitive trainings
  • Not Being Aware Of Stressful Periods In Youth’s Lives And Noting Excessive Fatigue – whether it’s exam week or struggles at home
  • Not Making Training Enjoyable – which has often led to athletes quitting that sport or being unmotivated to train hard
  • Not Communicating 
  • Not Monitoring The Correct Areas

“Athletes are not adequately prepared to sustain the imposed load,” Gazzano states. “They are often injured in the last part of a game, see their performance drop during multi-day events, make technical or tactical errors at the end of a competitive event, or catch the flu at the end of an intensive training camp. Finding and maintaining the delicate balance between training and competition loads, recovery and rest is both an art and a science.”

Former BYU football player Jordan Pendleton, who trains athletes of all levels at P1 Performance, said the year-round emphasis on one sport is affecting the workload of young athletes. 

“These kids are getting more volume of practice than the professionals. Even NFL players have an off-season,” he said. “Evaluating athletes’ workload and then readjusting it to fit their individual needs is so crucial to watching the volume that every athlete’s body is managing. This will enable athletes to build strength, power, explosiveness and speed instead of breaking them down.”


Of the millions of youth across the country that participate in competitive sports, 3.5 million children are injured each year, according to Stanford Children’s Health. Many injuries just simply happen and may not be prevented. Those injuries that can be, however, are increasing in volume and severity. Many of these injuries are the cause of higher workloads, poor endurance, lack of offseason and preseason preparation, lack of sufficient recovery time, being overwhelmed and being overused. 

According to the article, “Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine,” there is a particular need to balance the training loads and recovery in young athletes who have “immature musculoskeletal systems.”

Utah-based Sport Ready co-founder Robin Cecil, a physical therapist of 25 years, said, “The current competitive system has taken training of young athletes to a new level, including training them like little adults, with high exposure rates and limited risk management in place. This is leading to young athletes who are dealing with a plethora of accepted, often life-altering injuries. Children are being placed in vulnerable positions. There is no other arena in which this would be deemed as acceptable. We have to remember that there is life after sports and we need to make sure our children are not left broken on our watch.” 

The NCAA has been monitoring this situation for years and, in 2016, implemented changes to preseason guidelines for football. They discontinued two-a-day practices and added one more week to its preseason while also limiting the number of practices and specifying contact and non-contact training times. Additionally, the NCAA also defines and limits countable athletic related activities, limiting the hours out of season during the academic year to eight hours per week and four hours per day and 20 hours per week in season. With the No. 1 risk factor for injury being a previous injury, injury prevention should be a primary goal.


R.E. Smith, an educational specialist, said there are different stages of burnout due to varying and excessive demands on young athletes and physiological responses from those that feel, among other things, over reached, over trained and underperformed. This “athletic stress” can counteract the very reasons young athletes participate – fun and satisfaction – while also leading to loss of sleep and appetite and withdrawal.

Smith suggests an emphasis should be placed on skill development more than competition and winning. “The more fun and satisfaction the child perceives, the less anxiety they experience,” he said. “Worrying about failure and adult expectations and increased parental pressure to participate are associated with increased anxiety.”

Burnout typically occurs less in multi-sport athletes than sport-specialized athletes simply with changes of paces offered by different sports, different fields of play, using different skill sets and being in different environments. With cross-training situations, movements can become less robotic and full of more energy and motivation which can lengthen athletic journeys.


Monitoring an athlete’s wellness includes identifying their fatigue, stress, sleep, hydration, nutrition and other factors. This wellness shouldn’t be ignored, according to Carolyn Billings, BYU’s Director of Sport Medicine and head athletic trainer. 

“Athletes today are under a lot of stress,” she said. “We need to prepare our athletes and then make sure they are ready for the demands of the training to avoid vulnerability to injuries and burnout. As we continually evaluate the wellness, workload, injuries, and burnout of our athletes, we are able to more clearly see and understand their ability to perform from both a mental and physical standpoint.

“As we continually evaluate the workload, injuries and burnout of our athletes, we are able to more clearly see and understand their wellness from a mental and physical standpoint.

“We need to prepare our athletes and then make sure they are ready for the demands of the training to avoid vulnerability to injuries and burnout,” she said.

Monitoring athletes at the high school level

Utilizing sports science evidence to help athletes compete at their best, peak at the right times and keep them healthy has been proven to work at the elite, university and Olympic levels. Using this same evidence for the same purpose is seldom used at the high school or youth club levels.  

This past year, the Hillcrest High girls soccer coaches implemented sports science-based strategies while monitoring the athlete’s wellness and workload. Training loads were increased appropriately and athletes were monitored. Each athlete logged in each morning and responded to five questions about her current mental and physical health. 

Following training, each player would assess how hard they felt like they worked. It was no longer a guessing game.  The Huskies coaches were alerted to any elevated risk factors, which improved communication and allowed them to individualize training loads, limit injuries and increase performance.  

“As coaches, our main goal for them was to enjoy what they were doing and be competitive, which included healthy athletes. We often forget that external stressors such as work, friends, school and family factor into an athlete’s recovery and performance,” Hillcrest head coach Kyra Peery said. “Monitoring athletes allows us to train a team and focus on the welfare of each athlete.”

Peery noted the program gave her athletes “a voice without having to feel awkward, guilty or overwhelmed.” 

“It was a simple way that the girls could advocate for themselves and taught them how to self-evaluate,” she said. “This translated on and off the field as we witnessed our girls approaching hardships, setback and issues head on as a team and individually.” 

Perry said she also noticed improved trust between her players and her coaches. “They knew we were using their feedback to improve practices, change workouts and cater sessions to their needs,” she said. “We were more efficient in our planning and execution during practice sessions.”

The implementation of these strategies for the Huskies squad also had a significant impact on the number of injuries and the time lost for those injuries. The two prior years, Peery said the team had multiple injuries, including four ACL tears, among her varsity players to the extent that many were not available to play by the end of the season. This past year, her team was fully staffed and earned a co-region championship by year’s end along with a UHSAA award for the highest combined GPA among 6A teams. 

“I can honestly say that these strategies were a key factor in helping the girls reach this achievement,” she said.

Train smart

Developing athletes and winning teams is a worthy and fundamental goal. The “more is better” philosophy is not a proven development strategy.  

“Remaining injury and illness free is a fundamental component of ideal preparation for sporting performances,” Michael Drew stated. “To train smart, one must choose to train with organizations and coaches who utilize the evidence and are concerned with the welfare of their athletes, not win at all costs.” 

Billings and BYU women’s soccer coach Jen Rockwood had been concerned for years about the load of their athletes and the lack of recovery time. “We started monitoring heart rate during drills and found that some of the drills that we thought would really work the girls weren’t as hard as we thought and some of the easier ones actually got their heart rates up,” she said. “By monitoring our athlete’s workload, wellness and injuries we were able to assess the performance abilities of the Cougars soccer players. For the first time in program history, all players were available to play at the end of the season so it made a huge difference in keeping track of how every individual athlete was really doing.”

Also, parents are a child’s most invested advocate. Understanding the landscape is essential at both the club and high school level. Currently, there is a lack of data on the number of injuries occurring at the club level and the number of overuse injuries at the high school level. Sport club associations limit their risk management and defer it to individual clubs. Most clubs do not have much in place as it is not being demanded by parents or associations.   Scheduling of club games and tournaments does not always take into account proper workload management causing high-risk environments. Off-season training seems to be rarely scheduled, if at all, as there no longer seems to be an off-season in year-round sports. High school preseason is short with limited regulation of and education on training loads.   

Other Solutions

While it’s a fine balance between not training enough and overtraining in trying to reach top performance in youth competitive sports, it is crucial to find tools and organizations to help each individual athlete, their parents, trainers and coaches manage their workload and have open communication within their programs.

The Aspen Institute has studied the competitive sports issue for years and provides eight recommendations to the solution for fixing the system that has been created. These include:

  • Revitalizing In-Town Leagues
  • Reintroducing Free Play
  • Encouraging Sports Sampling
  • Training Coaches, Particularly In Safety and Injury Prevention Measures, Basic First Aid and Motivational Technique
  • Asking Kids What They Want
  • Think Small
  • Design For Development
  • Emphasize Prevention

Sport Ready, an organization that works with orthopedic surgeons, athletic trainers and other medical and sports science professionals, promotes a #TrainSmart campaign with key messages of injury prevention, monitoring the health, wellness and injury rates of athletes, and improved communication through the use of evidence-based tools and services.

“Playing as many sports as possible will always be my recommendation for young athletes, but if you’re fixated on one sport, I would make sure you seek out the proper training and care to make sure you are moving correctly and recovering properly,” Pendleton said. “Monitoring your own volume and having data on your own body is so critical to grow and improve correctly.”

From a compilation of sources of medical professionals and studies on youth competitive sports come these suggestions to individualize with each young athlete based upon the sport and each athlete’s age, growth rate, readiness and injury history:

  • Set limits on participation time and sport-specific repetitive movements to avoid overtraining
  • Carefully monitor training workload during adolescent growth spurts (due to an increase in injury rates during this time)
  • Schedule rest periods and optimize recovery
  • Ensure vitamin intake
  • Use appropriate equipment, particularly shoes
  • Have realistic goals and expectations of young athletes, understanding sport readiness based on motor skills
  • Adapt daily loads
  • Notice issues quickly and respond appropriately
  • Advocate appropriately for your child
  • Ensure that preseason conditioning is gradual following limited activity levels
  • Have proper warmup and cooldown procedures and practices in place
  • Encourage sports associations and clubs to work together
  • Request the risk management strategy from associations and clubs


The current landscape of competitive sports has created high-level opportunities for athletes to hone natural abilities and learn and develop within the sports they enjoy. Participation in athletics brings a variety of benefits to our youth from mental and physical standpoints – with everything from health, fitness, regular exercise, weight control, strength, socializing with peers, improving self esteem, developing leadership qualities, improved sport performance and goal setting.

In order to function within this system, education and communication processes should be continually used to monitor these athletes’ workload, injury and burnout and overall wellness to continue to play for as long as they are able and still have fulfilling lives after athletic careers are over. 

Collecting data

Sport Ready is working to gather overuse injury data, free of charge, and would like to invite male and female athletes ages 10-22 who play any kind of sport at the club, high school or university levels to participate. If you are willing to have your child participate, or if you are 18 or older and would like to participate in this injury surveillance project that will be completed through a weekly questionnaire starting on Aug. 1, 2019 and continuing for eight weeks, go to to register or email [email protected] for more information. The deadline to submit requests for participation is July 26.