Elite competition, specialization and injuries are hurting youth sports

10 Jun 2016


By Julie Kailus Every parent with a kid in sports today has run into hypercompetitiveness in some form. It might be those squawking parents pushing their child inappropriately from the sideline. In other cases, it’s a league that too quickly raised the bar—and expectations—for kids who were just playing sports for fun and fundamentals. Occasionally a rogue coach preaches sports specialization by age 8 for any chance at a college scholarship. “It’s a fine balance making sure your kids are developing healthy,” says Michael Mercier, father of two elite-level teenage soccer players, one of whom plays for Fairview High School. “We certainly juggle the peer pressure to be on the No. 1 team, but what I’m most concerned about is my kids’ mental and physical well-being.”
‘I thought I was in a place [as a coach] where I could be an influence in the lives of young people. There are so many teachable moments in sports, and it’s important to take advantage of them. Today’s world doesn’t allow all coaches to be teachers.’

— Dick Katte, Colorado High School Coaches Association

An estimated 44 million American children and adolescents aged 6 to 18 engage in some form of organized athletics. And clearly there are unhealthy trends: increasing competition and pressure, including intensive, year-round training in a single sport; unrealistic parent-led anticipation of full-ride scholarships; disturbing links between youth sports and overuse injury; and total burnout in children before they even enter middle school. “Increasing competition is an issue we are constantly grappling with in youth soccer,” says father Kyle Linebarger, director of coaching for the U11-U19 boys’ divisions at the soccer club FC Boulder. “Current trends show kids in top clubs playing 60 to 70 matches in a year, which is not healthy physically, and traveling all over the country, sometimes at ages as young as 7.” By comparison, the average soccer professional plays just 30 to 35 matches annually.

Sports Specialization and Overuse Injuries

One Boulder parent who sees the issues in youth sports through her own sports-medicine lens is Sherrie Ballantine-Talmadge, an osteopathic physician and assistant professor of orthopedics at CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center. She recently helped develop the Boulder Valley School District’s new guidelines on identification and treatment of concussions.
A track and field event in Longmont. Coaches and doctors watch for concussions, overuse injuries and even burnout in young athletes, but parents play a leading role in helping their kids participate at a healthy level. (photo by Steve Trembly)
A track and field event in Longmont. Coaches and doctors watch for concussions, overuse injuries and even burnout in young athletes, but parents play a leading role in helping their kids participate at a healthy level. (photo by Steve Trembly)
Ballantine-Talmadge regularly treats Boulder kids with acute traumas like concussions. Increasingly, she’s also seeing overuse injuries among athletes who specialize and overtrain too early, which can result in damage from repetitive loading of the musculoskeletal system. “When all you do is one sport, and you only challenge your body in that one way, it puts you at risk for injury,” explains Ballantine-Talmadge, a former elite-level figure skater and the daughter of a professional basketball player. She is far from alone in these observations. Particularly in the last three years, there has been conclusive evidence that intense competition does not benefit young athletes. Granted, specialization is considered acceptable in a few sports, like gymnastics, where prepubescent athletes have better range of motion. But most studies have suggested that early specialization in the nation’s most common team sports—soccer, football and baseball—not only leads to injury, but may actually decrease a child’s chance at getting a scholarship. Some of the most persuasive findings came from a UCLA study that surveyed 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes. It found that 88 percent participated in an average of two to three sports as children, and 70 percent did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12. “There’s good evidence that if you specialize you will wear your body out,” says Dick Katte, who was head basketball coach at Denver Christian for 48 years. “Think of it like this: It’s good to go to math class, then to science class. You do the same in sports—your fall sport, your winter sport and so on. As one of my players said, ‘It was being a point guard that made me a better shortstop.’” After reviewing overwhelming data, The American Medical Society adopted an official position on these critical concerns. Participating in youth sports offers benefits such as self-esteem, peer socialization and general fitness, it says, yet “the emphasis on competitive success, often driven by goals of elite-level travel team selection, collegiate scholarships, Olympic and National team membership, and even professional contacts, has seemingly become widespread.” The result is “increased pressure to begin high-intensity training at young ages,” and “such an excessive focus on early intensive training and competition at young ages, rather than skill development, can lead to overuse injury and burnout.”

Psychological Effects

It’s one thing to see physical evidence of injury, and another entirely to grasp the larger psychological impact of pushing youngsters too early and too hard. But are parents the only party to blame? Senior vice president of branch operations at YMCA of Boulder Valley Jamie Holstein is a parent and lifetime athlete who wrote her thesis on life lessons of losing in sports. Burnout is happening, sometimes as young as 13, she says. Parents are driving this “elitist mindset to a certain extent,” but clubs and coaches are part of the problem, too. “We have 10-year-olds in Colorado who are forced to play in situations where the result of one match determines their league status for the next season,” coach Linebarger says. “These commitments, either time-wise or financially, can limit a young player’s ability to participate in other sports or activities, which I think are necessary for their full development as a person and as an athlete. [Intense competition] only serves to fuel those ego-driven parents and coaches to push children to short-term success, while sacrificing long-term development and well-being.” “We have to use sports to launch us for life,” Ballantine-Talmadge says. “If you kill it when they are young, they are going to walk away from physical activity altogether.”

Solutions for Better Balance

Holstein says the YMCA philosophy is built on “progressive competition,” which helps guide the right level of competition for the changing physical and psychological maturity of children. “Sports should be a good, quality learning experience, with a focus on fun, sportsmanship, relationships and belonging—not just winning or losing,” she says.
Skyline High School volleyball player Laura Staiano. (photo by Renee Staiano)
Skyline High School volleyball player Laura Staiano. (photo by Renee Staiano)
Lessons will play out on the field anyway. “We can’t ignore competition, because it still happens, and there’s no such thing as ‘everyone wins,’ but kids and families should feel a part of what they’re doing,” Holstein says. “Sports mimics life. It’s a microcosm for life.” It’s this larger character-building concept that gets lost, she says. According to Linebarger, FC Boulder has created workshops that address these issues. Twelve core values are threaded through instruction of players, coaches and parents; injury protocols and a partnership with Boulder Sports Medicine help injured athletes get prompt medical care; and another program helps players learn about the college process, whether as a prospective player or a student. “I think the key is to have an open and honest relationship with coaches, who have such incredible influence over our kids’ mental well-being,” Mercier says. “It’s about keeping open lines of communication about what’s going in our kids’ lives outside of sports.” Parents who wonder how much competition is safe for their kids should go with their gut, says Ballantine-Talmadge. “You need to trust that voice that questions, ‘Why are they trying to recruit my child?’ Kids will do anything to please an adult. They are looking for approval, and they will do things in sports they shouldn’t be doing.” If we let them.
Lifetime athlete and writer Julie Kailus has two sons, 7 and 9, who play soccer and lacrosse. So far they’re still having fun.
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