We seem to live in a divided society. Many active kids do various sports, and many teenagers have very minimal activity levels. Those doing too much too soon are at risk of burnout: or injury: 50% of teenagers drop out of sport at 16 and 34% of middle school children playing sport in the USA get injured each year.
Conversely, those doing too little suffer other problems: in the UK, a third of 2-15-year-olds are overweight, with 1 in 5 being obese. Unfortunately, the days of our children receiving daily physical exercise at school are long gone. The government has applied the sports model to everything. It uses the terms p.e. and sport interchangeably when they are different things.
In the words of Baroness Sue Campbell “sport is nice to do, p.e. is need to do“.
As a parent, it is hard to get the balance right. We want to encourage our children and support them, but we want to avoid pushing or dictating. Like eating vegetables and cleaning our teeth, some things need to happen daily to secure the long-term health of our children: activity and exercise are two of them, free play and a bit of fun are others.
Tips To Help Parents
Play: child-led activities that involve movement. Games like tag, kick the can, climbing on playground equipment., swimming, bike riding, ball games.
Exercise: An organized activity that aims to improve one or more aspects of health and fitness. Swimming lanes and bicycling for distance. If you measure it, then it is probably exercising and not playing. Circuit training, running, and weight training are forms of exercise.
Sport: Organised activities that have rules and scores. This includes ball games and swimming, running, and bicycling races.
The observant reader will notice that swimming, biking, and running are in all three categories. There is a big difference between them leading the activity and adults telling them what to do for children. Children will tailor the activity to their needs: they can run around all day in short bursts but are unable to make one lap of the athletics track. Parents with good intentions often take their children to a sports club to ‘burn off some energy.’ Still, the sheer organization means that the work: rest ratios are sub-optimal.
Children run to chase a ball, another child, or a butterfly. They then stop. This is play.
Two Rules Of Thumb That Help Sustain Healthy Athletes Are:
- They should train in organized activities no more than an hour a week per year-old (5 hours for five-year-olds, 10 hours for ten-year-olds). This includes physical education classes.
- They need to be playing with their friends without adult supervision or organization, for 1 hour for every two that they are in an organized activity. So, if Billy has 2 hours of p.e., 30 minutes of swimming, 60 minutes of soccer practice, and a 30-minute match each week, he should be out playing for 8 hours every week. Children who do less play and more organized activity are more susceptible to injury.
- Free play is essential for skill development and decision making as well as social and emotional development. Children under five minimal gain benefit from organized sports activities: kicking about in the park with Granddad or playing hopscotch with Mum is more beneficial.
How To Reduce Injuries
Some injuries are unfortunate accidents. For example, if your son happens to get rugby tackled by a much bigger player with poor technique and suffers a knee injury, there is little you could have done.
However, 70% of the major knee injuries occur without any contact. The main risk factors are overtraining/overplaying, poor physical preparation, poor technique, and a previous injury.
Parents Try These Things To Prevent Injury
Plan your child’s schedule 4 weeks in advance. I get parents and young athletes to fill out a four weekly planner, listing all school sports, club sports, and matches. It usually highlights the lack of rest days and too much competition. Something has to be taken out. If your child is playing 2-3 matches a week, they will get injured.
Have an exercise program that you do 10-15 minutes a day to improve strength, balance, and coordination. This used to be covered in p.e. classes, but that is uncommon now. Children play a lot of sport but lack physical fitness. Simple sequences like this squat matrix are an excellent place to start: https://youtu.be/y_foHI-nZ_o
Remember that your child is not a small adult. The younger they are, the more free play and fun they should have. Trying to replicate an adult-led professional program rarely leads to a successful sporting child.
Being a parent is hard work, and no one wants to feel that their child will be left behind. But if your son or daughter is coming home tired, lethargic or in tears, then you might want to give them a night off from their sport and cuddle them instead. They are children first and foremost.