In Burn Out, Parents' Role in Youth Sports, Problems in Youth Sports

If you ever decide to hang out at your local Pediatrics office or sports medicine clinic, then you’ll be sure to see a new kind of patient, courtesy of the adult-driven insanity that is today’s youth sports. You’ll find far too many preadolescent and adolescent athletes suffering from chronic overuse injuries.

Back in the day, before the advent of sports medicine clinics, 12 month travel ball seasons and over-involved, over-competitive parents, the only injuries that kids were treated for were trauma-based. That is, a kid would have a sprained ankle, broken bone or perhaps a concussion or hyperextended knee. These were all due to the kinds of things that you might expect to occasionally happen when kids play competitive sports: collisons, falls, hard contact, etc. In the infancy that was competitive youth sports, there was no such thing as a chronic overuse injury.

However, by the early 1990’s, the pediatric, medical landscape began to change. It’s been estimated that 20% of the young athletes who showed up for the treatment of their athletic injuries during this time were suffering from overuse problems. Now, fast forward to the present. Today, 75% of the kids showing up at one of the top sports medicine clinics in the country, 75%!, are suffering from injuries caused by chronic overuse!

These overuse injuries are not relegated to certain sports either. You see them across the sports board: Tennis elbow in 10 year olds; Little League elbow in 8 year olds; Shoulder tendinitis in swimmers; ACL tears in countless female basketball and soccer players. You name the sport and sports med docs and other pediatricians are seeing the related overuse syndrome.

So what’s really going on here?

Kids are spending far too much time practicing the same athletic motions over and over again without proper rest or variation. At younger and younger ages, kids have been asked to specialize in their sport. The absurd argument fed their parents by overly competitive coaches is that unless their child gets an early start and plays travel ball all year round, then they won’t have as good a chance of improving, making the varsity squad in high school and later possibly winning a college scholarship. Or we could be talking about chasing the Olympic or Professional sports dream. It’s all the same really. It’s the “more is better” mentality. The more practice time you put in every day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, the better your child-athlete will become. And remember, no wasted time here! If your kid slacks off, then there will be three others practicing harder and ready to take his place.

As part of this “more is better” mythology, it’s important not to let your kids play multiple sports in the off-season because it will tend to distract them from really getting good at their “primary” sport. Then again, there’s no longer much of an off season anymore so for the serious athletic family, this has become a little less of an issue.

The sad thing according to Lyle Micheli, founder of the first ever sports medicine clinic (35 years ago) associated with Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts is that most of these overuse injuries are easily preventable! By introducing variety, moderation and rest into everyday training, a child-athlete’s risk can be reduced to nearly zero! According to Micheli, the problem here lies with the adults, the parents.

Some parents have allowed their own excitement and over-involvement in their children’s sport to get in the way of reason, perspective and moderation. The most important thing here is NOT your child’s athletics! The most important thing here is the emotional and physical well-being of your child. Your child’s overall happiness and relationship to you should easily trump their athletic endeavors and potential.

Getting to all the best competitions, having the very best coaching and making sure your kid trains enough hours every day is NOT the critical part of your parenting job. I don’t care if you tell me that this is what your kid wants. I don’t care if you tell me that your kid is the second coming of A-Rod, Lebron or Tiger! Your kid is just a kid and therefore is in no position to make healthy, adult decisions about what may be in his/her best interests. Consequently, your child depends upon you for this perspective. He/she needs to hear from you that “variety is the spice of life,” “rest is part of training” and that when you are hurting, tired or in pain, you don’t blindly push through it to build toughness. These are your kids we’re talking about here.

So I challenge you to take an honest look at yourself in the mirror when you ask yourself these questions. “Just who is my son/daughter’s sport really for?” “Am I over-invested in his/her training and competitions?” “Am I the one who is always pushing him/her to practice more?” “Do I get upset when he/she has a bad performance or loses? Is my child in an emotional healthy and reasonable team situation where the coaches have the children’s best interests in mind?

Life passes all too quickly and the only thing that really matters in this life is the relationships that we forge with our close friends and family, especially our kids and grandkids. Please do not let something as trivial and ultimately meaningless as your child’s “unlimited” athletic potential get in the way of your long term relationship with him/her and his/her emotional and physical well being. Please do not let the lure of a pro contract blind you from what your child really needs from you: To be unconditionally loved and protected, and to not have to perform for your attention or affections.

Please read Mark Hyman’s important new book, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids (Beacon Press)

Check out this brief NBC news story on the dangers of too early sports specialization.


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