Story by Laura Canterbury and photo by Brit Huckabay
Anna is ready for school volleyball tryouts and is nervously excited about going through the process. In some ways she is more worried about her parents and all the time and money they spent on travel leagues, private coaches, serving clinics, and conditioning. What if she does not make the team? She started in fourth grade with most of her peers but now doubt is creeping in. Was it enough? “Parents think all this training is helping their child, but in reality it can lead to injury and burnout,” says Dr. Lyle Cain, board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Andrews Sports Medicine. Statistics show that as children get older the rate of dropping out of high school sports is higher today than 10 years ago. It usually boils down to these two factors that Dr. Cain mentioned: injury and burnout.
“Injuries in children are way higher than they have ever been, and that is mainly caused by early specialization,” Cain explains. Children 20 years ago could play every sport, and the seasons ended in time to allow that to happen. “It was basically an unintended version of cross training, where various sports used different muscles and you had time to cross over,” Cain says.
Baseball now only takes off the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so in order to be competitive and have a starting position on the team, the year-round mentality can cause overuse injuries in adolescents. “Muscles, joints, and growth plates need time to recover; a good three to four months a year, and the sports mentality today does not allow for that,” Cain adds. The stress fractures, tendinitis, and shin splints are going to keep on coming if a child’s growing body doesn’t get the proper rest it desperately needs.
The way to challenge this culture is to start with the parents and coaches. Encouraging children to avoid early specialization is a starting point. But the next issue here is: If I don’t specialize early, then my child will not play. Unfortunately now, the system of youth sports is geared toward meeting the needs of more competitive players, which places more expectations on everyone else. And we all know that only a fraction of high school athletes nationwide will go on to play sports in college.
Among the benefits that participating in sports offers are physical activity, experiencing successes and failures, working as a team, and getting away from screen time. These are great things. But some families are asking themselves if it is worth the price of all the extra stress, time, and money that now seem required to be a competitive athlete at such an early age.
If parents can recognize the burnout factor they can just say no to all the travel and clinics and extra time that causes youth to feel over-scheduled. Maybe instead they could go out for breakfast, sleep in, have family dinners, take the dog for a walk, get away for the weekend, or have picnics in the park, and maybe, just maybe, those will be the memories your child takes with them from living at home.
Laura Canterbury is a mother of five children (Ava, Abby, Annabel, Liam and Win) whose family proudly lives and plays in Mountain Brook. She is the co-owner of TriFusion studio in Crestline.