How Much Sports Is Too Much for Kids?

An increase in youth sports has led many to question — how much is too much? While there are clear benefits to children participating in youth sports, is it good for kids to begin competing at a young age or start to specialize at a young age? With an increase in injuries seen in young athletes, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association has set clear guidelines for parents and coaches to follow. Read on to learn more about these recommendations.

Youth sports dilemma

Youth sports options have shifted from school-based programs that run seasonally, to club-based programs that run year-round. These club-based programs often include the following:

  • Organized sports can be found for children as young as two years old.
  • There are play-off games and travel teams formed at much younger ages.
  • Elementary school-aged children are attending state championships.
  • Many sports give every kid some type of participation trophy, medal, or ribbon.
  • Kids are specializing in a single sport before they get into high school.

While this may seem harmless, there are health considerations to be taken into account for kids in youth sports.

The importance of free time

Studies have shown that participating in youth sports can help children with the the following:

  • Building their skill-set
  • Increase self esteem
  • Teach them to get on with others
  • Enhance brain development
  • Improve physical well-being

However, it is important that kids also have free time and time to be bored so they can use their imagination, play, and relax. Research has shown that allowing kids to play in an unorganized fashion teaches kids how to solve problems, helps them identify their interests, and teaches them to work with others.

What is single sport specialization?

Single sport, also called early sport specialization, is when a child under the age of 12 participates in one organized sport almost year-round at the exclusion of other sports. The thought behind this was that it would allow the child to be better at the sport. The popular “10,000-hour” rule was also adopted with this, stating that if you put 10,000 hours of practice in, you would excel and become proficient at a skill.

New studies have shown that there are multiple benefits for younger kids that are involved in a variety of sports, including:

  • Varied skills. Being involved in multiple sports allows kids to gain different types of skills that can be applied from one sport to the next. Skills like endurance, hand-eye coordination, and agility gained in one sport can help make you better at another sport.
  • Fewer overuse injuries. Fewer overuse injuries are seen when kids play multiple sports. If a child only plays one sport, they use the same muscle groups and do the same movements repeatedly, making them prone to injuries from overuse. This is less likely to happen if breaks are taken from one sport to play another.
  • Reduced burnout. If only one sport is played year-round, there is an increased risk of burnout. Burnout occurs when the sport is no longer enjoyable to the athlete. This is more likely to occur when there is pressure from a high level of competition with intense training at a young age. A varied sports schedule can help to mitigate this.

Burnout and overtraining syndrome

Burnout and overtraining syndrome can occur when an athlete’s performance worsens despite intense training. This can occur due to the constant high levels of psychological or emotional stress, fatigue, immune system failure, or insufficient recovery time. Signs of burnout and overtraining syndrome include:

  • Decreased sports and/or school performance
  • Chronic muscle or joint pain
  • Personality or mood changes
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep changes
  • Lack of enthusiasm or ambition
  • Difficulty completing usual routines
  • Decreased appetite and/or weight loss
  • Increased injuries, illness, or infections

When a child only focuses on one sport from an early age, plays one sport for multiple teams, has overlapping seasons without intervals of rest, and never has an off-season — they are at an increased risk of developing burnout and overtraining syndrome. Kids that are ambitious, determined, and intense, have low self-esteem, are high anxiety, or have increased pressure to train or compete at a higher level from a coach or parent are also at risk of developing burnout and overtraining syndrome.

Treating burnout

The good news is that this can be avoided and is treatable. The following steps are useful to consider when addressing symptoms of burnout and overtraining syndrome.

  1. Communication. It is important for parents and coaches to talk with their young athletes to make sure they are working at a level that is appropriate for them.
  2. Varied workouts. Young athletes should be encouraged to cross-train by varying workouts to focus on conditioning, weightlifting, strength training, flexibility, and core strengthening.
  3. Injury reduction. By focusing on variation you can help decrease injuries from overusing the same muscle groups repeatedly. If an injury does occur, rehabilitation and recovery time are needed to ensure maximum recovery.

Most importantly, an emphasis on having fun should be made for all young athletes playing sports.

Benefits of youth sports

There are many benefits to kids participating in youth sports. Research has shown that participating in youth sports can lead to long-term benefits for youth, their families, and communities.

Mental health

Sports have been shown to benefit a child’s mental health. Sports participation is associated with:

  • Lower rates of anxiety and depression
  • Lower amounts of stress
  • Higher self-esteem and confidence
  • Less substance abuse and fewer risky behaviors
  • Reduced risk of suicide
  • Increase cognitive performance
  • Increased creativity
  • Greater enjoyment of all forms of physical activity
  • Improved psychological and emotional well-being for individuals with disabilities
  • Increased life satisfaction

It is important to routinely check in with how young athletes handle some of the stressors and pressures of participating in youth sports. Young athletes should be routinely screened for common mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety. If an athlete’s identity is strongly tied to the sport they are playing, it increases their risk of developing mental health concerns, especially if they experience an injury that prevents them from playing the sport.

Physical health

Participation in youth sports is also a way to encourage physical activity. Physical activity has been linked to numerous health benefits including:

  • Improved bone health
  • Improved weight
  • Increased cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
  • Reduced risk of cancer and diabetes

Life skills

There are many other benefits to participating in youth sports.

Life skills
  • Teamwork
  • Social skills
  • Social responsibility
  • Values
  • Goal setting
  • Time management
  • Work ethic
  • Empathy
  • Educational & occupational skills
  • Determination
  • Perseverance
  • Grit
  • Resilience
  • Critical thinking
  • Youth athletes often have higher levels of academic achievement and show an increase in leadership qualities.

    Teaching our children healthy habits by encouraging sports participation can also directly impact the economy and community. It can help decrease healthcare costs by preventing chronic diseases from developing and can build a stronger long-term labor market.

    Recommendations for parents

    A rise in athletic injuries among children engaging in tough training exercises prompted recommendations from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association to encourage parents to delay having their child specialize in one sport as long as possible. They advise taking at least two days off each week for rest. They also recommend not playing a single sport for more than eight months a year. The number of hours that a child should spend in sports training each week should be equal to the child’s age.

    The National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends following the below guidelines for youth sports:

    Delay specializing in a single sport

    Young athletes should participate in a variety of sports, which supports general physical fitness, athleticism, and reduces the risk of injury in athletes.

    One team at a time

    It is recommended that young athletes only participate in one organized sport per season. An increase in some sports training year-round has increased the number of kids that are simultaneously competing in multiple organized sports. Limiting it to one sport per season is important to reduce the risk of injury.

    Less than eight months per year

    Athletes should not play a single sport more than eight months per year. It is important to allow rest time between sports to let your body recover. This reduces the risk for injury.

    No more hours per week than ages in year

    Young athletes should not participate in an organized sport for more hours per week than their age. For example, if your child is ten, they should not participate in more than ten hours per week of organized sport.

    Two days of rest per week

    There should be a minimum of two days off per week from organized training and competition. Rest and recovery days should be reserved for just that. This means that no other organized team sports, competitions, or training for another sport should take place on these days.

    Rest and recovery time from organized sport participation

    At the end of each organized sports competitive season, young athletes should be given time to spend away from that sport. This allows for physical and mental recovery and promotes health and well-being which decreases the risk of injury and burnout.

    Finding balance

    There are clear benefits to children participating in youth sports. However, negative outcomes can also occur if children try to take on too much at one time. Finding the right balance of youth sports and free time allows children to try multiple sports to find out what they like, and gives their bodies time to rest. When this is achieved it decreases the risk of injury and allows kids time to use their imagination and creativity.

    Key takeaways:
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