The National Alliance for Youth Sports believes participation in sports can positively affect social, mental and physical development. Good sports experiences can help boost self-esteem, promote teamwork, develop leadership skills, provide natural stress relief, reduce the risk of obesity and promote lifelong healthy lifestyle habits — not to mention just being fun for both the participants and the spectators.
Other benefits of sports include character development, creating new friendships, learning how to deal with both success and failure, as well as celebrating diversity by bringing together people from all kinds of different cultures to work toward a common goal.
What to Consider
No sport is 100-percent safe, and a pre-participation sports physical or well-child checkup by a qualified pediatric healthcare provider is a critical element of protection in helping to ensure that your child is physically and developmentally ready to engage in a sport.
Certain medical conditions such as kidney disease, seizure disorders, asthma or congenital heart disease — among many others — may preclude some sports participations or require special precautions or accommodations to ensure safe participation.
About 6 out of 10 children between 5 and 14 years of age engage in sports activities outside of school, with 70 percent of those participants being boys and 56 percent being girls. Many of these kids tend to focus on developing and specializing one sport in organized competition rather than overall skill development and play. Of the approximately 60 million children ages 6 to 18 years who participate annually in organized sports, about 27 percent participate in only one sport. About 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by age 13 years.
Excessive focus on one sport can lead to overuse injuries, loss of interest in play or burnout. Early specialization can also lead to social isolation, abnormal psychosocial development and unhealthy behaviors. In fact, the main sport played by Division I NCAA athletes is usually different from their first organized sport, and most of these athletes played multiple sports in high school.
In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported of the 322 athletes who were given an invitation to the National Football League Combine in 2015, 87 percent played multiple sports in high school, with only 13 percent singularly focusing on football. The truth is that only 3 to 11 percent of high school athletes proceed to compete at the collegiate level, while a mere 0.03 to 0.5 percent will ever reach the professional level.
The AAP has talked about the seriousness of failure to appreciate the significant short-term and long-term consequences of overuse injuries, which can persist into adulthood and crush any dreams of college or even professional play long before a career can even begin.
Overuse injuries account for approximately 50 percent of all athletic injuries. Research suggests that early specialization in a single sport can negatively affect long-term success in team sports. Athletes who participate in multiple sports have greater advantage with skill transfer and pattern recognition than those who specialize. According to the AAP, children who diversify their sports experiences are more likely to be more physically active throughout their lives as well as be more successful in achieving their athletic goals.
Steps to Take
Remember, the focus of childhood athletics should be on having fun, learning lifelong physical activity skills and the positive psychosocial effects of participation. What you can do to help optimize your child’s success in sports participation follows.
Encourage participation in multiple sports. This helps provide variety, prevents burnout, and allows children to discover passion for a particular sport, a critical part of any future plan for success. If sport specialization is desired by both your child and you, it should be done with collaborative consultation with a qualified pediatric medical provider to enable a plan to minimize risk and optimize health.
If your child is enrolled in an elite sports program, you should carefully monitor the training and coaching environment, be aware of best coaching practices and voice any concerns.
Delay participating in a single sport competitively and exclusively year-round until at least ages 15 to 16 to minimize the risks of overuse injury, as recommended by the AAP. This reduces the risk of overuse injuries, stress and burnout while increasing the chances of long-term success later.
Focus on skill development as opposed to structured competitive tournaments. Early mastery of fundamental skills is predictive of greater long-term success in sports.
Set limits on training times. The risk of injury and detrimental psychosocial outcomes is greater if training exceeds 16 hours per week or if the ratio of organized/scheduled training versus free time exceeds 2:1.
Make rest an important part of your training regimen. One to two days each week should be free of any training or organized competition. In addition, young athletes should take three months off each year from their preferred sport in one-month blocks, while exploring other sports or physical activities.
For more resources, check out the STOP (Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention) Sports Injuries initiative, made up of representatives including the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, the AAP, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, among many other partners (www.stopsportsinjuries.org). You can find more information for coaches, parents, trainers, athletes and providers for specific sports, including baseball, cheerleading, filed hockey, figure skating, golf, gymnastics, football, martial arts, swimming and many others. Injury-specific tip sheets include concussion prevention and treatment, overuse injuries, sports nutrition and strength training.
Sports participation can be a positive experience with lifelong health benefits. With healthy boundaries and a cheering support group, sports experiences can be a memorable and enjoyable part of childhood.
Jessica L. Peck, DNP, APRN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, FAANP, is an experienced PNP who frequently provides medical services for pediatric sporting events and camps while cheering on her own four children in various athletic events.