For parents and sports medicine professionals, youth sports present a complex riddle. On one hand, participation in youth sports counteracts the worldwide rise in childhood obesity while on the other; youth sports injuries can cause both short and long term health problems. How much is too much?
Participation in youth sports continues to become increasingly popular and it is estimated that 30-45 million 6-18 year olds engage in a form of athletics. But along with this rise in participation has come an increase in the number of sports related injuries in young athletes with 30-40% of adolescents seeking medical attention every year for such problems. Many of those children that are participating in youth sports are doing so in a year-round format, often playing on multiple teams during the same time period. Because of that, overuse is a significant factor in the development of injury and some estimate that it attributes to 50% of injuries in young athletes.
How do we prevent injuries in youth sports? It may start with not treating young athletes like adult athletes. A combination of growing bones and underdeveloped muscle can leave youth athletes more vulnerable to injury. For instance, while older pitchers can throw 90-100 pitches several times a season, research indicates that the risk of arm injury is directly correlated with number of pitches and young pitchers shouldn’t pitch with arm fatigue. Similarly, addressing strength and coordination deficiencies in young female soccer players is most effective in early adolescence.
Furthermore, those young athletes that participate in a variety of sports have lower rates of injury and are more likely to stay active later in life than those that specialize in one sport before puberty. Many “one-sport” athletes become “no-sport” athletes when they reach early adolescence because of burnout and injury. Additionally, sport specific injury prevention programs have been shown to be effective in preventing injury.
To prevent overuse injuries, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young athletes have 1-2 days per week without structured practices, games or scrimmages to allow physical and psychological recovery. The organization also encourages 2-3 months away from a specific sport every year.
As only 1 in 200 high school athletes make it to the professional sports level, participation in youth sports with professional sports the primary goal is unrealistic. As stated by the American Academy of Pediatric statement on youth sports, “The ultimate goal of youth participation in sports should be to promote lifelong physical activity, recreation, and skills of healthy competition that can be used in all facets of future endeavors.”
While the prevention of sports medicine injuries is a topic of continuing importance to medical professionals the risks of sports participation and physical activity are far outweighed by its benefits. Youth sports are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension, among others. Those that engage in sports early in life are more likely to remain active in later decades. In fact, underuse as been associated with an equal amount of musculoskeletal pain as overuse.
For parents, the risks of under activity and childhood obesity must be weighed carefully against the tendency towards the over participation that is an ever to common result of youth sports involvement.