Overexposing Youth Athletes to Injury
A major cause of overuse injuries in youth sports is related to overexposing the athlete to injury. This may be in the form of practice or participation, and early return to play after sustaining an injury. Injuries will happen in sport, it is part of the game, but making efforts to reduce those injuries that can be prevented requires taking a look the variable that can be controlled.
The Busy-ness of Youth Sports
There continues to be a growing number of club sports for males and females. This includes soccer, basketball,volleyball, baseball and softball. As a physical therapist treating and managing youth sport injuries in these sports and others I witness not only playing one sport, but playing this sport with greater frequency. I have asked athletes playing college sports if they played more while in college or in high school, and the response is resoundingly, high school. Tournaments are often played over multiple days, there is little, to now down time between high school and club seasons. The result is a growing number of injuries related to the increased exposure to play. Some of these injuries are the result of repetitive stress (elbow ligaments, stress fractures of the spine), or overuse, some are from acute trauma (example; ACL injury, ankle sprains), and some injuries are growth-related injury (apophyseal injury of the knee, heel and pelvis). These type of injuries can cause the youth athlete to be away from their sport for 1 to 6-months recovering from injury.
Why Run the Risk of Injury
The youth athlete of today has the ability to play year around in one sport. This can be in a combination of club, recreation league and high school sports.
One of the problems that exists is the frequency of play in a week, combined practice and competition, that may require playing 2-3 games per day, or 4-6 games in a weekend. Research suggests that being exposed to practice and game in hours that is greater than one’s age increases the risk of injury 2/3 times.
“We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence,” study author Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, medical director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, said in a Loyola news release. “Among the recommendations we can make, based on our findings, is that young athletes should not spend more hours per week in organized sports than their ages.”
The other issue is the continuous play over a year. Youth athlete specialization in one sport is occurring at an earlier age. This will include more play and games, thus exposure, over the course of a year. There is little time for rest and recovery. There is also little time to prepare with off-season strength and conditioning, specific to the individual’s needs based on their rate of growth and maturity, physical and mental.
Tips to avoid overuse injury in the youth athlete
- Tip #1: Do not play in competitive sports year round.
- Tip #2: Do not spend more hours per week participating in your sport.
- Tip #3: Do not specialize in one sport until the youth athlete reaches late adolescence.
A Game Plan for Youth Athlete Wellness
There must be time to develop as an athlete. This includes increasing movement and fitness requirements outside their sport, and how this can have cross-benefit for the sports that they engage. For example, a soccer athlete can benefit from engaging in track and field, and individual sport where speed and specific training would be beneficial to their soccer fitness. In track there would be less exposure to ankle and knee injuries due to less contact and cutting activity.
Introducing a periodized training program that takes into consideration the youth athletes seasonal and year round demands of a single, or multiple sports can better prepare for participation. This can include age specific introduction of training and conditioning techniques that develop the youth athlete’s fitness. Included in year round periodization is forced rest that allows the body to recover from intense participation. This not only allows for physical recovery, but provides for mental recovery.
The bottom line is that if we want our young athletes to continue healthy participation through youth sports, and potentially to collegiate athletics, we must take care of their physical and psychological well-being through carefully designed, annual programs that are not just about how important the next game is, but taking a look at the big picture of Our Kid’s future. Less can mean more.
Wellness is an active process of becoming aware and making choices that optimize health and successful participation in athletics. The foundation for success begins with the Athlete having a solid Game Plan for Wellness.
- Focus on One Sport Raises Young Athletes’ Injury Risk (nlm.nih.gov)
- Largest Clinical Study Of Its Kind Finds Intense, Specialized Training In Young Athletes Linked To Serious Overuse Injuries (medicalnewstoday.com)