The Importance of Playing: The Growing Risk of Overuse Injuries in Youth Athletes

We live in a world of extremes—extreme home makeovers, extreme couponing, extreme diets, extreme paintball—it’s everywhere.  Gone are the days of moderation. It’s go big or go home on everything, every day, all day. This new mentality is even evident in the world of youth sports. In the past decade participation in youth sports across the board has soared to include more than 35 million kids between the ages of 7-17 in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong. I love sports. Sports can instill a great work ethic, sense of teamwork, recognition of strategy, skills to think outside of the box, feelings of accomplishment when a goal is reached, and even a healthy way to deal with defeat and then move forward. Sports even serve as a great tool to help conquer the growing number of obesity and sedentary lifestyles in today’s youth. But, with the increasing popularity of organized youth sports, comes an increase in extremes. An alarming number of those 35 million kids playing sports begin specialization in a single sport at a very young age. Practice time requirements for youth teams continue to increase, and the time in the off season for recovery continues to decrease. As a result, the amount of overuse injuries in kids is growing at an alarming rate. While overuse injuries can put a kink in a child’s sports season by keeping them benched, they can also be detrimental to development.

PREVENTION: Pre-season & In-season Training

Training and prepping for the season ahead does not start on day one of practice. The actual sports season is meant to be a time to maintain and improve good workout habits that have been established before games and competitions get underway. Neuromuscular control, balance, coordination, and the right mix of flexibility and strength, are needed to thrive in any sport. Gradual pre-season training should be underway two months prior to the start of the season.

Every kid is different. They have different builds, rates of development, and genetic make-ups. Therefore, some young athletes are going to be more prone to certain types of injuries, while others may have a more engrained sense of how to move and be successful in their chosen sports. A great way to be aware of your child’s strengths and weaknesses is to seek out a health care provider who can look at their movement patterns (how they run, walk, jump, pivot, squat) and help outline a personalized training program to help your child have a safe sports season and even function better in everyday life as they grow and develop. Any overuse injuries that are already present can also be diagnosed and rehabbed in this environment, too.

AVOIDING BURN OUT AND OVERUSE INJURIES

Year-round club and travel teams are the norm now days in the world of youth sports. These teams don’t get much rest time. Here are a few things to keep in mind when signing your child up for sports:

1. Variety is Vital: Encourage your children to play different kinds of sports that allow them to move in different ways to help encourage good development. Playing a single sport creates repetitive movements that can increase risk of overuse injuries and create imbalances throughout a body that is still growing and developing. Sports specialization should be held off until teen years are underway when the body has matured.

2. Timing is Everything: Children should have 2-3 non-consecutive months off from organized sports each year. They should also have 1-2 days off from practice each week during their sports season. These breaks allow for fatigued bodies to rest and recover. Kids that experience overuse injuries or even excessive time in their sports of choice are more likely to get burnt out and adopt a sedentary lifestyle. The number of hours per week a child is involved in a sport should not exceed their age. If you have an 8 year old, they shouldn’t spend more than 8 hours a week at practice and games. Once teen years begin, practice time should still be limited to 12-16 hours per week. Moderation is key. 

3. Too much of a Good Thing: So your child loves baseball, huh? That's great that they've found something they love. Encourage them in their sport and let them have fun with it. One precaution to avoid overuse injuries and burnout is to play on one baseball team per season. Playing on multiple teams for a single sport during a season means more time, more repetitive movements, and greater risk of overuse injuries.

4. Let The Kids Play: As mentioned earlier, sports teach a lot of lessons beyond ball handling skills and athletic improvements. With the number of youth participating in sports climbing, and growing competition, comes an increase in pressure for coaches and athletes alike. Studies have shown that children specializing in a single sport or playing on multiple teams for a single sport have a higher risk of fatigue. With that growing fatigue comes a decreased self-confidence in their performance and skills.

Sports can be a great learning tool and a way to have fun. We just need to keep in mind that these young athletes are still growing and developing. And the key word in “playing sports” is playing. There’s plenty of time once your child has reached skeletal maturity to specialize in a sport. If they have been encouraged to play different types of sports, and create good training and recovery habits, they will be less likely to burn out or injure themselves when those great opportunities and dream teams come their way.

Until Next Time,

Abby Scheer, DC

References:

Brenner J. Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics. 2007;119(6):1242-1245.

Hall R, Barber Foss K, Hewett TE, Myer GD. Sport specialization’s association with an increased risk of developing anterior knee pain in adolescent female athletes. J Sport Rehabil. 2015;24(1):31-35

Hawkins D, Metheny J. Overuse injuries in youth sports: biomechanical considerations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2001;33(10):1701-1707.

Mcleod T, Decoster L, Loud K, Micheli L, Parker J, Sandrey M, White C. National athletic trainers’ association position statement: prevention of pediatric overuse injuries. J Athl Train. 2011;46(2):206-220.

Merkel DL, Molony JT. Recognition and management of traumatic sports injuries in the skeletally immature athlete. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012;7(6):691-704.

A team isn’t a bunch of kids out to win. A team is something you belong to, something you feel, something you have to earn.
— Gordon Bombay, Mighty Ducks