In this article, we examine the ever-growing evidence of increasing injury to children in youth sport. Are high-performance behaviors creeping in too soon?
Early specialization is a topic that is starting to get more and more coverage in youth sport, as various codes create ‘pathway’ and ‘performance’ programs for young athletes. Whilst many of these programs are designed with good intentions, there is evidence to suggest that sporting programs designed with performance in mind – for children who are still developing (physically, mentally, and socially) – are not in the best interests of young athletes.
As National Sport Development Consultant Alex Chiet explains, “High-performance behaviors are breaking kids down, causing 80% of players to have a poor experience. It’s crucial we don’t just cater to the 20% who may want to pursue sport in performance environments longer-term. Part of the challenge is that historical structures are embedded in New Zealand sport, and we need to question some of these traditions to improve participation rates and reduce risk of injury.”
Most children who participate in youth sports will not become professional athletes. In fact, the majority of children who get involved in sport cite concepts such as ‘fun with my friends’ and ‘learning new skills’ as key factors in why they turn up. Very few kids start their sports journey with the sole ambition of becoming a elite athletes. Whilst there are perhaps more opportunities to forge careers as professional athletes in the modern age, the chances of this happening are still exceptionally slim.
In 2016, Sport New Zealand released a Talent Plan titled ‘Balance is Better’. That plan highlighted three issues that are not well understood in grassroots sport. These issues are having a significant negative impact on children and young people enjoying and staying involved in sport and reaching their potential as successful athletes in adulthood. One of those issues is that identifying young athletes early, and associated early sport specialization, is taking its toll on young people. The latest release from ACC has provided further evidence, found in our own backyard, to support this claim.
ACC recently released research around the surge in overuse injuries, such as Osgoods-Schlatters and Sever’s cases, in young people who participate in a single sport. Traditionally, overuse injuries and similar ailments were growth related. But, in a world where programs demand more time of young athletes, and modern lifestyles are changing behaviors, these issues are increasingly associated with early specialization in youth sports. In fact, increasing literature suggests early specialization can have a negative impact on long-term athlete development. So have we got the balance wrong?
Isaac Carlson, ACC’s Head of Injury Prevention, says there’s been a 60% surge in sports-related injuries to kids aged 10 to 14 since 2008 – double the increase seen in any other age group. “There’s a number of reasons for the spike in injuries,” he says, “but a growing concern is that too much sport may be just as harmful for young people as not getting enough exercise. We’re encouraging parents to use a ‘one hour for every year in age’ guideline, where the amount of organised or competitive sport per week should not exceed their child’s age.”
So what does this mean for sports administrators, parents, and program leaders? “For example, a 10-year-old should avoid doing more than 10 hours of organised sport per week, across all their sports and PE,” explains Carlson. “At least one hour a day of moderate-to-vigorous exercise is beneficial – either play or organised sport.”
Importantly, the message is not that sport is bad; the message is that balance is better. That may mean ensuring young people engage in physical activity each week, or it could be finding a balance between free play and organised youth sport activities. The evidence suggests that – due to factors like the repetitive movement patterns that result from intensive training in a single sport, and a failure to build a broader physical literacy through playing other sports – early specialization in youth sports (both individual and team sports) can have negative developmental and performance outcomes down the line.
Isaac Carlson agrees: “We’re finding young kids are increasingly in one of two camps: those not doing enough physical activity, who may be putting themselves at risk of injury because they aren’t conditioned for sports participation; and, in growing numbers, those who are engaging in higher levels of sport and training at a young age, and aren’t getting enough of a break. More structured sports training and competition means youth athletes are being exposed to higher-intensity, higher-volume training from an earlier age, which can increase the risk of repetitive overuse and fatigue-related injuries. Too much intensive training reduces the energy available for growth and development. This can affect not only peak bone mass and the onset of puberty, but a number of other important body systems which can have lifelong consequences relating to injury and physical or mental illness.”
So the question remains, how do we make positive change, and what role is tradition playing in this issue? Firstly, by shifting to a participation focus, where children are introduced to a more than one sport – whether informally or in organized settings – instead of being directed towards early specialization in a single sport at an early or young age. This will give kids and youth athletes opportunities to move in a variety of ways, and engage in crucial movement skill development; make social connections; learn new skills; and float between structured and organised competitions and free play with friends. There is no doubt, play is a powerful educator, and is to be advocated for.
Tradition around competition structures, tournaments, and talent identification is clearly creating anxiety and competition amongst parents and players, perhaps leading to a degree of panic that ‘If my child doesn’t specialize now, they will never make it‘. This attitude to early sport specialization is a myth, and one that needs to be busted. Going forward, sports leaders and coaches need to adapt their programs to include a balance – a blend of experiences where fun, freedom, and exploration of skills are at the forefront. We don’t have to rewind too far to remember the days of Kiwi kids playing every sport under the sun all day – and whilst the modern world and the technology we are exposed to has changed everyone’s lives, we need to make time for physical activity and play.
Below is some key advice and information from ACC around the impact of early sport specialization on developing bodies.
The potential pitfalls of early sport specialization
Young bodies are vulnerable.
- Children and teens are still developing. So young athletes are more vulnerable to the stresses caused by too much sport and/or intense training at an early age, and more at risk of injury and long-term damage.
- We only get one chance to go through puberty, and too much-high intensity training can delay it. This narrows the window to build bone mass, and develop muscle strength and coordination, which then increases the risk of injury throughout life.
- Injuries from doing too much sport and training can impact your kid’s sporting future – whether their ambition is to make it in professional sports, or simply to enjoy a lifetime of participation.
- Rest and recovery are essential parts of sport and training – it’s when the body grows and develops. This is even more important for children and teenagers.
Support your child or teen by focusing on fun and variety.
- Advocate variety over early specialization – encourage kids to try a range of different sports, activities, and playing positions during their school years.
- Do the numbers – the number of hours per week of structured sport and training should be less than their age (e.g. less than 10 hours per week for a 10-year-old).
- Play for enjoyment – are they smiling? Early sport involvement should be fun. Focus on developing a love of sport and being active.
- Free play – Give kids time to just be kids (and play). Skill development comes from more than deliberate practice; they learn many sporting skills by just playing with their mates.
- Allow time for rest, recovery, and sleep – sometimes doing nothing is doing something.
There are many different paths to sporting success.
- Children and teens are engaging in early specialization, neglecting other sports, and training harder, in the belief that this is the best way to make it as elite athletes. However, single sport participation is likely to lead to burnout, a loss of motivation, and injury.
If you’re involved in the delivery of youth sport, it might be time to take stock, reflect, and ask ‘what’s the rush?’ If we can find the balance, keep kids active, and meet the needs of everyone, we will be on the right track to creating better sporting experiences, and perhaps reducing the injury rates resulting from early sport specialization and the premature pursuit of elite performance pathways.
- ACC Kids in Sport Communication Plan
- ACC “Significant Surge in Kiwi Kids Side-lined by Injuries”
- A practical guide for monitoring athlete training and competition load
- How much is too much when it comes to youth sport? - A guide to understanding specialisation, playing multiple sports, and training load
- A parent guide to child growth and development in sport
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