As youth sports have grown into a very robust machine, we have seen that the uptick in organized sport participation has had both positive and negative consequences. While on one hand so many young athletes have developed both sport skills and life skills that will carry them forward into the future, we’ve also seen that when done incorrectly, organized youth sports can create highly detrimental mental and physical side effects. Let’s examine the structure of youth sports, the risks that have developed over the last decade, and how to prevent the negative consequences.
The first thing to really look at is the play and practice structure. As youth sports have become far more structured and competitive, the frequency of practices and length of the season have grown significantly. Many kids are practicing 5-6 days a week, and their seasons are often close to 12 months a year. Swimming and baseball are notorious around our facility for having heavy practice schedules and long seasons. That by itself is problematic, as many young bodies simply aren’t ready for structured, maximal effort activities at such a high frequency. This issue is compounded when athletes are asked (or choose) to play for multiple teams, as is the case in some sports. For instance, in baseball, when a player wants to play on the town travel team, they are also required to play in the house league as well. This means the player has two teams to practice for, two game schedules, and in many cases is now pitching beyond what is reasonable. We’ve seen it happen in basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and other sports too, where the athlete is playing on multiple teams within the same sport at the same time, and the season begins to take a very high toll. Realistically, kids are not professional athletes - their seasons shouldn’t resemble professional seasons. They need fewer, shorter practices, and less total games.
Ultimately, we have to tackle the issue of youth sport coaches and programs trying to monopolize their players. When we’re looking at kids aged 5-12, they are still in a stage in which they should be able to try every sport they want to, rather than be pigeonholed into one or two sports. They should also be given time to just be kids - go outside and play, hang out with friends, and be with their families, rather than have sport turn into a nearly full time job. But, with sport becoming such a big business even at that age, so many coaches and leagues are determined to drive up participation hours and lengthen seasons in order to create an increasingly profitable financial structure. This issue of “control,” where leagues and teams really do end up controlling their players, is especially dangerous when we consider that many youth coaches are only slightly more educated than volunteers, and make decisions with a short term focus that leads to long term consequences. Now, I say that very carefully, because so many youth coaches are great people - they care about the kids, want to see them improve and thrive, and spend a lot of time trying to set up their players for future success. However, even well intentioned coaches have caused significant damage given the current structure, and the results are even worse when we see money driven coaches living vicariously through youth sports.
There are two main consequences to this systemic overuse of youth athletes - overuse injuries and mental burnout. Let’s tackle injuries first.
Across the youth sports world, we are seeing more and more serious injuries for kids below age 12. This is because a longer season, heavier practice schedule, and potentially multiple teams leads to significant overuse. The most common one is baseball. Coaches constantly want to put their best pitchers on the mound, but with a 6-9 month season, sometimes four or more games in a weekend, plus 2-3 practices a week, that can be problematic. We have seen numerous kids come in to us having had Tommy John surgery before high school (even as young as 10), or kids who have had to shut down throwing movements for months at a time due to significant stress injuries. We have kids who have told us they play over 100 games between Spring, Summer, and Fall baseball. That’s as much as minor league professional baseball. While we’re using baseball as an example, they are far from the only culprit. Swimming is perhaps the worst, with up to 14 hours of practice a week and an 11-month season. When we did an intake for a swim team that was beginning training with us, over 70% of their high school swimmers already suffered from chronic knee or shoulder injuries. Many sport movements are highly repetitive and specialized, such as swimming strokes or baseball pitching, and that leaves players at a higher risk of overuse injuries. In those cases, it is especially important to limit total repetitions, specifically maximal effort repetitions, and to control total volume.
The hardest part of these situations is that these injuries are preventable. From the youth infrastructure side, simply shortening seasons or reducing total time would be a great first step. But, because the industry of youth competitive sports is built around constant participation, we see injuries increase with revenue. The more money a team can make, the more willing they are to overlook injury issues. Ultimately, kids need breaks, need some degree of diversity, and need coaches who put the athlete’s health ahead of elementary school trophies.
The mental consequences of overuse are just as prevalent and negative. The number of kids who learn to hate their sport, who learn to look at sport as a job instead of a passion, who get turned off from sports altogether, is startling. Aside from their love of the sport, overuse does have other diagnosable side effects, like stress response and depression. While those occurrences fall outside our scope, we’ve seen them happen. Sometimes all it takes is a bad coach who drives the kids too hard, too often. Even though it’s hard to find youth sports coaches, it’s important to hold them to a high standard in their treatment of the kids.
There is no doubt that many youth sports programs need to tweak their structure. Too many practices, too many games, too long of a season, and too much overuse on specific movements has led to increased preventable injuries. Programs need to realize that they don’t own their players, and create their schedules in such a way that kids are still allowed to have non-structured play and participate in other activities.
Another factor that could help prevent some of these injuries, particularly in the middle school aged group, is proper training. As young athletes begin to develop better strength, better coordination, and better movement technique, they also increase their capacity for increased participation and decrease their risk of injury. The irony is that many kids do not have time to begin training, even twice a week, due to the commitments they have to their sports teams, therefore they get injured with their sport team. Ideally, kids would begin their strength training at around age 11, with a well-programmed, age appropriate workout system, allowing them to venture further into more competitive situations. From a time and schedule standpoint, this would mean committing approximately 2 hours per week towards strength training, while participating in sports practices for about 3 hours per week (probably two 90-minute practices), and one day each weekend for games (or a full weekend of games every other weekend). That way, the athlete has a reasonable balance of practice, training, and competition, as well as has time for other activities.
While this blog post really takes a harsh line on youth sports, that’s not the entire picture. I know so many youth coaches and programs that are doing fantastic things for young athletes, and who do a great job with their teams. The growth of sport has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on young people. That said, there is a trend of negative side effects that many parents have discussed with me and we have seen first hand, which is what this piece is meant to focus on. Ultimately, we have many well intentioned people doing unintentional damage, which is unfortunate. We also see many unethical people who see youth injuries as collateral damage in their quest for bigger and more profitable programs, which is evil. As youth sports continue to grow, it’s important to keep perspective on what those games mean, make sure time commitment is reasonable, and hold coaches accountable for acting in the best interest of their players.
-Coach Alex Drayson