As the school year begins, the number of injuries in young athletes increases. The risk of overuse injuries is more common and serious in young athletes for a number of reasons. Bones are still growing and simply can’t handle the same stress as an adult can during strenuous activity. Young athletes are still learning how to control their bodies with sport-specific movements, and they don’t have the ability to connect vague pain to an injury when being told to “work through the pain.” Living in the South, where temperatures allow for year-round sports participation, also contributes to overuse injuries. Unfortunately, there are no scientifically determined guidelines to help define how much exercise is healthy and beneficial to the young athlete compared with what might be harmful and represent overtraining.
Parents often struggle to determine what amount of sport participation is too much. My daughter has been doing gymnastics for a year, and we recently had her participate in the gym for consecutive days. I noticed a big improvement in her performance with back-to back workouts. As a parent, I thought about getting her into the gym more days per week to advance her abilities. As a physical therapist, though, I thought about the overuse injuries I see every day that are easily preventable. Parents need to understand that with young athletes, balancing sports participation and active recovery is the key to success.
To limit sports injuries, young athletes should eat a balanced, healthy diet and get at least eight hours of sleep at night. In addition, they should avoid sugary drinks and stay properly hydrated.
Adequate warm-ups and cool-downs are critical to reducing sports injuries. Athletes should incorporate strength training and focus on improving their “core stability.”
Limit each sporting activity to a maximum of five days per week, with at least one day off from any organized physical activity, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.
Avoid specializing in one sport until late adolescence (17-18 years old).
Encourage multi-sport participation. Young athletes who participate in multiple sports throughout the course of the year have the best chance to reach their goals of extending their athletic careers.
Enforce a two- to three-month break per year from each particular sport, which will allow for injuries to heal and give the athlete a mental break.
Young athletes should also limit tournament play over the weekends and avoid participating in more than one team of the same sport over the course of a season.
In addition to overuse injuries, if the body is not given sufficient time to regenerate, young athletes may be at risk of “burnout.”
Signs of burnout:
Decreased sports performance and chronic fatigue
Vague or chronic joint or muscle pain
Lack of enthusiasm or effort
Changes in sleep patterns
Decreased appetite and/or weight loss
Personality or mood changes, including depression, irritability or anger
Increase in the number of injuries or illness
High blood pressure or heart rate
If you notice that your child is showing signs of burnout, there are a number of things you can do to help:
Take time off from sports. This can include limiting practice and weekend tournaments.
Talk to your child to understand if anything outside of sports may be a contributing factor. They may also be feeling pressured to win or perform at a level that is beyond their control.
Promote a positive attitude about their sports participation. This can include not putting too much pressure on them and understanding that they can’t play a perfect game every day.
Let your child be involved in the decisions about their sport participation.
Every parent dreams about their child becoming a professional athlete; however, it is important to realize that, depending on the sport, only 0.2-0.5% of high school athletes will make it to the professional level. Parents should encourage young athletes to be physically fit and active while developing an understanding of teamwork. This, along with other skills associated with healthy competition, will help them be productive later in life.
-American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee of Sports Medicine and Fitness. Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics. 2000;106:154 –157
- National Collegiate Athletic Association. Fact sheet. Available at: www.ncaa.org/about/factsheet.pdf
Stephen LaPlante, MS, PT, ATC, is a physical therapy team leader at the Children’s HealthSM Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Plano. He attended Texas Tech University and earned a master’s degree in physical therapy and athletic training. Before coming to Plano, Stephen’s experience includes working with elite professional athletes in Florida with world-renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews—under whose direction the Children’s Health Andrews Institute was developed—and he now shares that knowledge and experience with youth athletes in North Texas.