Youth Sports are a great way to introduce your child to several important aspects of life, such as teamwork, leadership, camaraderie, fitness, social skills, and so much more. But when it comes to playing their favorite sport, how much is too much?
With so much talk of travel teams, 1-on-1 training sessions, and indoor training facilities, you might be under the opinion that if your child is not training all-year for their sport, then they'll fall behind their peers and never be able to catch up.
Evidence has shown that this might not be the case. Not only is this amount of training not significantly helping your child, but overtraining is actually a hindrance to their performance and puts them at an increased risk for injuries.
The unfortunate side-effect of this is that it has created an awful trend in which children are increasingly experiencing overuse injuries, some of which require surgery and/or rehabilitation.
When Training Becomes Too Much
Injuries now play a much bigger role in youth sports than they ever did in the past. Just walk into any Physical Therapists office who practices sports medicine or musculoskeletal treatment, and they will tell you how children have become a much more significant part of their client base than ever before, and the year-round training is partially to blame.
From 1990 through 2014, the number of soccer-related injuries treated in hospital emergency departments in the US each year increased by 78 percent and the yearly rate of injuries increased by 111 percent among youth 7-17 years of age.
Take one example, Ulnar Collateral Reconstruction, more commonly known as Tommy John's Surgery. This surgery was first performed in the 1970s on elite baseball pitcher, Tommy John. Just 30 years later, it's one of the most commonly required surgeries for baseball pitchers in youth sports leagues. In fact, this surgery is more common in children than in professional athletes.
That's one example, in one position, in one sport. Furthermore, many injuries that we see today coming from young athletes of any sport are a direct product of overtraining. Almost half of all sports injuries in middle and high school athletes are from overuse or overtraining. This is when an athlete trains too hard, or for too long, or with too narrow of a focus.
We all know that short-term overtraining causes problems; having a quarterback through 300 deep passes in practice in a single day is going to wreck his rotator cuff. What about training specific movements nearly every day for a year, then straight into another year, and another. What is the likely outcome? Those repetitive movements have no counterbalance, your child is slowly being conditioned, one day at a time, into muscular tightness and imbalances that are going to plague them in everyday life, and also lead to their inevitable injury in the future.
Playing Too Much Leads to Burnout
Your child can love playing soccer more than anything in the world, but that doesn't mean that they can't get tired of it. Too much of anything can start to feel like a burden, especially when it becomes so time-consuming that there is little room for anything else in life. When your athlete only plays their sport 4 to 6 months out of the year, the time off that will give them and their bodies a much-needed break. Instead of feeling run down by the time the next year starts, they will be completely recovered and stronger for it, leading to a better and more rewarding season. In addition, their bodies will be given the opportunity to rest, recover, grow, and develop properly in the absence of one sport being constantly played and focused on.
Without a significant break in the sport, most children and teens will grow to resent the growing obligation of constantly competing, constantly traveling, and the toll that it takes on the other aspects of their lives. When life revolves around just one priority for so long, it's hard to know what to do with life when it is gone.
More Doesn't Always Equal Better
Professional athletes don't play all year round, and wouldn't even if they could. In fact, almost none of them played all year long when they were younger either. When training for any sport, the National Strength and Conditioning Associations identify that there are four distinct phases; Pre-Season, In-Season, Post-Season, and Off-Season. Each phase has different training aspects and modalities that are vitally important to the improvement of any athlete. Without them, performance will be hindered.
Cross-Training Might the Answer
Throughout childhood and adolescence, young athletes should naturally be developing better coordination, balance, and reflexes. This does not happen from getting as much practice in as possible. No, it happens simply from the fact that they are getting older and their body is developing.
When specifically trained to complete a handful of movements, as in sport-specific training, these natural tendencies are disrupted through the muscular imbalances created during repetitive movements. Foundational movement patterns are lost. So, practicing the fundamentals too often can harm their overall athleticism; You can have too much of a good thing.
Take NCAA Football's Division I athletes, 71% of them were multi-sport athletes growing up. For many sports, that number is even higher. In addition to giving your child a break from their current sport, cross-training provides a number of benefits that may not necessarily be obvious at first glance. With any repetitive motion, such as throwing a baseball/football, shooting a free throw, hitting a slap-shot, or any number of sports skills that are commonly trained, one starts to develop muscle imbalances throughout the body. The chest and shoulders become stronger than the muscles of the upper back; one side of the body becomes over-dominant, the thigh muscles become much more active than the glutes and hamstrings.
In all these circumstances, the weaker muscles in these imbalanced relationships become increasingly likely to get injured. Stepping back from the specialization in one sport to pursue other interests such as bike riding, swimming, or even a different sport will allow the muscles to adapt to new movement patterns and develop additions skills while lessening any muscle imbalances that were created during the in-season of their primary sport. The recovery from training and correction of these imbalances happens during the Post-Season and Off-Season portions of the year.
Not only will cross-training keep things new and fresh for your athlete, but also, they may even discover that they enjoy a different sport much more, or find one in which they are more athletically gifted. In these cases, an athlete may switch the sport that they see as primary and dedicate more of their focus to the one in which they are more physically dominant.
So Why do We Over-Train Our Children?
Because that is what we are told to do, like it or not, youth sports are now a very lucrative business, but if children aren't playing, parents aren't paying. There has been this artificial concept introduced that you have to train all year-round to "keep up."
If your child is 12 years old or older, then you've probably heard a pitch similar to this; "your child is a gifted athlete and should be competing at a higher level." "To be the best, you have to play with the best." Or "Your child looks like their ready for the next level, you don't want them to lose that in the offseason!" All of these are normally the beginning of a pitch for travel teams, specialty one-on-one training sessions, or a new indoor training facility where they seek out "elite" young athletes. Many of these places may mean well, but be sure that you're paying close attention to what your young athlete needs and if he/she should be handling more training at the moment before you sign them up for the next big thing.
All in all, let you athlete have a life outside of sports, it will help them tremendously both mentally and physically.