Too Much of a Good Thing: Children Over-Training in Sports
Little Girl, Big Dreams
Ever since I was three years old, I've been involved in sports. My parents signed me up for gymnastic classes with the hope of developing my motor skills in a social setting. I fell in love with the sport and became more involved as I grew, logging about 25 hours a week in practice alone. I was pulled out of school early some days and sacrificed many weekends to travel for meets. Everything was going great until, at age ten, I broke my hand. My parents thought about pulling me from the sport, but my coaches insisted I stay and stated that plenty of gymnasts continue with broken bones. Plus, at the rate I was excelling, the prospect of a college scholarship was promising. And that sealed the deal for my parents.
I continued to practice, focusing on leg strengthening drills while my hand healed. In no time, I was back competing until, at thirteen, I suffered a major concussion at practice. For weeks, I could do nothing but lie in bed. But after a while, I was back at practice. For the most part, I stayed injury free and continued with the sport in high school. I was being looked at by a few colleges, but then I tore my ACL and lost any chance for a scholarship.
Taking out a large loan, I went to college but couldn't leave gymnastics behind. I made the club team and suffered from a dislocated rib and constant pain in my knees and hip. At night, I would lie in bed with tears running down my face from the immense and constant pain. I didn't know what to do until my roommate finally cornered me and said “you need to retire from gymnastics.” Which I did at the age of eighteen.
Although my experience wasn't as bad as some, many children are being over-trained and over-worked in athletics. Kids are being forced to choose one sport to focus on at a very young age and train in that sport year around. They are involved in travel teams and clubs that put a lot of pressure on them to succeed. Parents and coaches pressure the kids to stay involved in hopes of attaining a college scholarship, and with the price of tuition these days, who can blame them? But over-training offers more harm than good, and it's important for parents to recognize these risks to help prevent permanent physical and psychological damage.
The amount of pressure put on children to excel can create immense emotional damage. Some children suffer emotional burn-out and are completely turned off to sports and, in some cases, fitness all together. Others develop eating disorders or turn to steroids later in life to keep up with the demand of competition. The pressure to win from coaches and parents can cause high anxiety and stress, which leads to troubled sleep or changes in behavior. Be sure to watch for the following signs to know if your child's sport is effecting their mental well-being:
Change in sleep pattern
Change in appetite
Sudden and drastic change in weight
Scrapes, bruises, and even the occasional broken bone are all part of childhood. But a child's body is not ready to handle the amount of stress and work that is normally saved for a college athlete. Intense and long practice hours place your child at risk for muscle injuries. These injuries, especially in the back and neck, can lead to posture problems, making way for further injuries and back pain as an adult. Children who break bones risk that specific area being stunted in growth. Over-training causesestrogen levels to drop as girls menstruate late or stop completely, which weakens bones and effects bone density for the rest of their lives. Bones also suffer through joint over-use which paves the way for children to develop osteoarthritis, which is a fancy word for bone rubbing against bone due to the absence of cartilage.
Don't get me wrong, children should play sports. Obesity in children is a real problem and getting kids involved in sports is a great prevention method. Organized sports also teach children teamwork, leadership, time management, and the importance of fitness. But too much organized sport, especially one sport, can be a bad thing. Here are some things to keep in mind to help avoid over-training your child:
Play more than one sport – If your child goes on to play a college sport, that is the time for them to make a decision on what single sport they want to play, not before.
Have an off-season- Even if your child insists on playing just one sport, be sure they take a break. 2-3 months per year or 1 month every 3 months is the suggested break schedule to help children recover and recharge.
Have a day of rest – Children must take one day a week to rest. During this 24 hour period, the child is not allowed to do anything related to the sport and simply relax.
Know the coach – Look up reviews on your coach, talk to parents, and talk to your kid. If there have been complaints or you see the coach constantly yelling and screaming at the kids, it's time to leave, no matter how good their sports program is supposed to be. And if you see a coach physically abuse a child, leave right away and report that individual.
Protect with proper nutrition – The adolescent and teen years are huge developmental stages, and it is important that they get the proper nutrition to aid their growth and protect their bones. Also, be sure your child is getting plenty of sleep and is staying properly hydrated.
Focus less on winning – In the end, your child is probably not going to the Olympics, so put an emphasis on having fun and staying in shape rather than destroying the competition.
It is important for parents to stay involved in their child's sports programs and to listen to their child's wants and needs. Some children want to be heavily involved in one sport, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as fun, rest, and proper nutrition are emphasized.
And in the end, I do not blame my parents for any of the injuries I have suffered due to gymnastics, since it was just as much my choice to stay involved in the sport. If anything, I am proud to be the guinea pig for my younger sister. After seeing the toll my body took from over-training, my parents told my youngest sister that she had to pick at least two different sports to play and never let her go year around.
And she recently received a full scholarship for softball at her college of choice.