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The Risks of Early Specialisation

In this article, we examine the ever-growing evidence of increasing injury to children in youth sport. Are high performance behaviours creeping into youth sport too soon?

Early specialisation is a topic that is starting to get more and more coverage in youth sport as various codes create ‘pathway’ and ‘performance’ programs for children. Whilst many of these programs are designed with good intentions, there is evidence to suggest that programs designed with performance in mind for children who are still developing (physically, mentally and socially) is not in their best interests.

When discussing this topic with National Sport Development Consultant, Alex Chiet, he explained, “High performance behaviours are breaking kids down, leaving 80% of players having 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 sport will not be professional athletes. In fact, the majority of children who get involved in sport to begin with cite concepts such as ‘fun with my friends’ and ‘learning new skills’ as key factors in why they turn up at all. Very few kids will start their sports journey with the sole ambition of becoming a professional. Whilst perhaps in the modern age there are more opportunities to forge careers in sport, the reality of this happening is still exceptionally slim.

Sport New Zealand released a Talent Plan in 2016 titled, ‘Balance is Better’. That plan highlighted three issues that are not well understood in grassroots and youth sport. These issues are having a significant impact on children and young people enjoying and staying involved in sport and reaching their potential as senior athletes. One of those issues is that identifying athletes early and specialising early is taking its toll on young people. The latest release from ACC has provided further evidence in our own back yard to support this challenge.

ACC has recently released research around the surge in youth sporting injuries with over-use injuries such as Osgoods-Schlatters and Sever’s cases on the rise. Traditionally these ailments were growth related, but in a world where programs are demanding more time of kids and the modern lifestyle has changed behaviours, have we got the balance wrong?

Isaac Carlson, ACC’s Head of Injury Prevention, says there’s been a massive 60% surge since 2008 in sports-related injuries to kids aged 10 to 14 – double the increase of 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 kids 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 sport per week – both training and competition – should not exceed their child’s age.”

So what does this mean for sports administrators, parents and program leaders? Carlson continues, “That means a 10-year-old should avoid doing more than 10 hours of organised sport per week, across all their sports and PE. At least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous exercise is beneficial – either play or organised sport.”

The important caveat here is that the message is not that sport is bad, the message is that balance is better. Whether that’s ensuring kids are active each week, or whether that’s finding a balance between free play and organised activities. The evidence suggests that early specialisation and the nature of repetitive movement patterns and a lack of broader physical literacy can lead to problems down the line.

Isaac Carlson agrees, stating, “We’re finding young kids are increasingly in one of two camps: those not doing enough exercise who may be putting themselves at risk of injury because they aren’t conditioned for activity; and, in growing numbers, those that are engaging in higher levels of sport and training and aren’t getting enough of a break.” Carlson continues, “More structured sports training and competition means kids 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 high-intensity training reduces the energy available for growth and development. This can affect not only peak bone mass and the onset of puberty but also a number of other important body systems which can have lifelong consequences for injury and physical and mental illness.”

So the question remains, how do we make positive change, and what role is tradition playing in this issue?

Firstly, a participation focus where children are introduced to a variety of sports whether informally or in an organised setting will allow them to move in a variety of ways, make social connections, learn new skills and float between structured and organised competitions or free play with friends. There is no doubt, play is a powerful educator and is to be advocated for.

Tradition around competition structures, tournament 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 specialise now, they will never make it‘. This 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 is at the forefront of the mind. 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 specialisation on developing bodies.

Young bodies are vulnerable.

  • Children and teens are still developing. They are more vulnerable to the stresses caused by too much sport and training which means they 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.
  • 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 focussing on fun and variety.

  • Encourage variety – encourage kids to try out 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? Focus on developing a love of sport and being active.
  • Free play – allow kids time to be just be kids and play. 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 specialising in one sport and training harder with the belief this is the best way to become a sporting star. However, they are more likely to burnout, lose motivation and get injured.

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 a better sporting experience and perhaps reducing the injury rates emerging through performance pathways too soon.

References:

  • ACC Kids in Sport Communication Plan
  • ACC “Significant Surge in Kiwi Kids Side-lined by Injuries”

Image Credit: Deposit Photos

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