It was a most beautiful fall weekend here in the Deep South…and I spent the majority of my weekend at a continuing education course for my physical therapy license renewal. It was long hours in class, but very interesting information. In the Pediatric Sports Medicine track I attended, there was a really interesting session regarding “Youth In Sports: Are We Pushing Too Hard?” and I wanted to bring this information to you all because it is so important.
This information comes from the medical community – doctors, athletic trainers and therapists - who love and care for student athletes and who really do want children to have free play and yes, also to be on the field too, but in a safe and healthy way.
The presentation opened up with a case study of a student athlete who was practicing a certain sport three hours a day, conditioning for an hour, plus scheduled practice at night, plus weekend tournaments, and was being homeschooled because there was not much time available for other activities.
The kicker? The student was ten years old.
There were many other case studies of student athletes, who by the age of 15 or 16, had had three or more surgeries due to sports injuries, plus hours of rehabilitation.
The presentation went through how in the past, children played games that children created and ran themselves. The goal was to have fun, the rules were flexible, teams and the players on the team were often switched, and sometimes better “athletes” were given handicaps to compensate for their athletic prowess. This was typical when I was growing up, and maybe when you were growing up as well. Organized sports started somewhere around the later middle school years typically or even first year of high school.
A lot has changed in recent years. Now forty million children sign up for organized sports each year in the United States. In contrast to those games of childhood we remember, organized sports are led by adults, with adult rules that are inflexible. The goal is winning, being better, and working as a team to win a goal that is often adult-oriented (ie, MVP trophy, all-stars, etc), often with the best players leading and the rest of the children left behind. The best facilities are often used for elite, hypercompetitive teams, along with the best coaches while the “leftovers” often go into community sports where the fields or other equipment may not be as in good a condition and the coaches may be parent volunteers. (Which in and of itself may not be a bad thing, but this particular session was looking at such factors as safety – for example, the elite clubs may have better access to athletic trainers and medical personnel on the sidelines when injuries and concussion occur as opposed to parent-led clubs). Most youth coaches, whether professional or a volunteer, are not typically trained in childhood development so sometimes developmental readiness cues to play an organized sport are not known and the way practices are conducted completely miss the developmental stage of the child.
The kicker to all of this is that recent statistics show by age fourteen, 73 percent of children who were in organized sports DROP OUT. It is no longer fun. My family went through this ourselves last year with our then fifth grader, and I can attest to this.
The way we as parents get into this, even those of us who have knowledge about this area, is that there is often a snowball effect of children showing considerable talent for a sport and then the parents are encouraged by the coach to have the child specialize. This then moves into a considerable financial and family commitment on behalf of this child to a certain sport with exclusion of other activities. If this continues, and the child then later becomes ambivalent about playing or injured, the child may be pressured to continue to play even if they don’t want to anymore. Some of my colleagues are actually seeing children who are feigning pain because they don’t want to return to play but they don’t want to tell their parents.
It may be that they do not want to shatter their parent’s dreams: an informal survey of 376 parents of elementary and middle school children’s parents showed that forty percent of them hoped their children would play at the college level , and 22 percent expected their children to become pro.
The reality is that less than 7 percent of high school players will go on to become college players, and that 82 percent of college scholarship funds do not go to athletics but to things other than sports. Many of the athletic scholarships are partial scholarships at best, as college coaches try to use their monies to build a team. An average four-year scholarship for 138,216 Division I schools surveyed awarded $10, 409 for FOUR years of college. One out of every five athletes on scholarship surveyed said that their sports commitment prevented them from taking the major in college that they wanted – not enough time!
Less than 1 percent of high school football players move on to the pros, and less than .5 percent of athletes of other sports do the same.
If we look at who excels in collegiate sports, this session pointed out that many truly great athletes in college started specializing in their college sport starting around the age of thirteen. Remember development – a five year old who can truly throw and catch a ball with accuracy will stand out, but eventually most children can throw and catch a ball. Development catches up, and this is true even in the older childhood years. But most of all, remember the drop-out rate. If you truly want your child to be a great athlete, wait to specialize and avoid the drop-out that occurs by age fourteen.
As a parent you can help by understanding development and readiness cues to play sports. You can help by having your child NOT specialize until they hit teenaged years. You can work with such organizations as Wildcat Baseball, Athletes and Authors, and Soccer In The Streets, who try to help children take ownership of the game themselves with some supervision and encourage participation by all. You can advocate for better training, education and certification for the coaches working with our children. You can help develop safety programs and implement them and keep up on the latest safety advances. My state has a new law going into effect on January 1, 2014 regarding concussions and how return to play should be managed; these are important things to know about if you are the parent of a student athlete or a volunteer coach. Look at minimizing individual recognition and competition until the teenaged years and encourage lots of free play and sports rotation for those who absolutely must play organized sports.
Ages thirteen to fifteen is the time to specialize in a sport. Let’s get the word out! I hope this is also a ball that general pediatricians pick up and talk to their patients and their families about this important topic.