In this series of Balance is Better articles, Sport NZ explores the myths surrounding youth sport and the shift in thinking needed to halt declining participation levels in kiwi teens.
It is well known that when young people train too hard, too often there is an increased risk of burnout, injury and falling out of love with sport. If we push too hard, kids will push back.
Dan Exeter is a Sport and Exercise Physician, who has undertaken specialist training in sport and exercise medicine both in Auckland and Melbourne. Dan has seen many young people pushed unnecessarily leading them to drop out early. He talks to us about how kids can develop a good relationship with sport and carry this forward through their life.
“I see people who have been injured playing sport or being physically active through all ages of life. So, kids from the ages of six and seven right up to people in their eighties.
“We know that kids who train more than their age in hours, not just in one sport but across sports, are more at risk of overuse injuries. Early specialisation also appears to be associated with an increased risk of overuse injuries, but more concerningly, an increased risk of negative mental health outcomes, a loss of wellbeing and increased risks of burnout.”
So, what are some of the most common injuries Dan sees in young people?
“Typical over-training injuries that we see in young athletes, and probably the most common, is a stress fracture. And that’s where the bones of kids in adolescence, especially around puberty where they’re growing rapidly, are being loaded too quickly or too frequently and not being given a chance to recover.
“We also know that the benefits of early sports specialisation have been wildly overstated. In almost every single sport, there is no benefit in early specialising if you want to achieve elite status by the time you’re an adult. In fact, it’s the other way. If you really want to be an elite athlete you actually should try to play a wide range of sports until the middle of your adolescence and then choose one.”
Dan says that the importance of physical activity in sport for all youth is pretty clear.
“The World Health Organisation’s got pretty clear guidelines on what we should be doing for our youth. We’ve got to ensure that when kids are in their adolescence that they are forming a good relationship with sport, so they want to carry on being physically active for as long as they can.
“We know that physically active kids don’t just benefit from being stronger and developing better, but they also do better in school and feel good about themselves. There’s a whole host of non-physical related benefits that being physically active provides.”
Dan says for the vast majority of New Zealand kids, it’s about ensuring that we are creating a positive experience in terms of sport and physical activity.
“Kids really want to be and should be sort of dabblers or samplers, taking part in a whole variety of sports. And there are some sports where it seems very difficult for a parent to be able to say to that sport, “Hey, I see you’ve recognised that my kid’s good at the sport, but actually we don’t want to come five days a week. We just want to come to a couple of sessions. Is that okay?”
“I think we’ve got to make sure that all kids get a really good experience from sport. And that’s having fun and doing what they love surrounded by people that they enjoy being around.”