As adults, we should want our kids to play sports. Organized sports are a terrific way for children to get exercise and avoid obesity. Sports promote mental wellbeing and social development. Some studies even suggest that sports and exercise can lead to academic success.
We must keep kids healthy enough to play.
Increasing injuries in youth sports
More kids are playing sports than ever before. Unfortunately injuries in youth sports have skyrocketed in recent years. Not only are more young athletes being treated in emergency departments and orthopaedic surgery clinics now, but injuries that used to only occur in professionals, like Tommy John injuries, now afflict school-aged athletes.
Maybe the increasing importance of sports in today’s society is to blame. The dreams of college scholarships and multi-million dollar pro contracts are certainly enticing. Less than 1% of athletes aged 6 to 17 ever achieve elite status in their sports, though. If one of these kids suffers a serious injury that requires surgery, the chance of one day making the pros likely drops dramatically.
Overuse injuries in youth sports
The harsh reality of youth sports injuries is that a majority of them are caused by overuse, and as adults, we are largely to blame. Parents and coaches are pushing kids to play a single sport as young as 7 or 8 years old. Kids train and compete throughout the year with no breaks. Families travel to different cities for tournaments every weekend. Young athletes participate in showcase events for scouts despite games and practices all week.
Fortunately the overuse injuries that these habits can create are completely preventable. Most kids are not capable of withstanding the demands of playing one sport day after day, city after city, for years on end. Those physical stresses lead to bone and joint injuries. Worse yet, that workload can create emotional burnout, causing them to give up sports entirely.
Simple remedies to keep young athletes healthy
Instead of focusing on future glory and winning at all costs, parents and coaches should make youth sports fun. Let kids play a variety of sports of their choosing. Give them a season off each year, or let them play sports that stress different parts of the body. Teach proper techniques. And do not push them to play through pain.
Youth sports should be a key part of every child’s life. But sports should only be part of it.
Note: This post appeared in a modified form as a column I wrote as part of the Room for Debate discussion, “Can Playing Ball Be Bad For Children?” in the October 11, 2013 issue of The New York Times.