Over the past years, youth sports have become highly competitive. As a result, youth athletes are being pushed to train harder and longer. Along with an increase in intensity, there has been an uptick in the number of sports-related injuries. Data from the Boston Children’s Hospital show that “30 to 60 percent of student athletes will have an overuse injury at some point in time.” This worrying statistic is causing many people to wonder whether hyper-competitive youth sports take too much of a toll on young bodies.
Because youth sports have become increasingly competitive, the pressure to develop skilled athletes is high. Lily Welsh, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) on the Berkeley High School (BHS) varsity girls water polo team, said, “I feel pressure to train at the level that everyone else is training, which is a fairly high level.” The anxiety athletes feel over meeting the standards set by themselves and those around them in hyper-competitive youth sports is often a major contributing factor to their beginning to overtrain.
The intense atmosphere in youth athletics is pushing children to specialize in one sport at an
extremely young age. The lack of variation in activity is contributing to this dramatic increase in overuse injuries. Jeffery Johnson, a chiropractor at TRUSALUS Health Center, where he has practiced sports medicine for over two decades, commented on these trends. “It used to be that kids would play lots of different sports where they move their bodies in different ways. Today we are developing these little machines that are specializing in one sport early on,” he said. While this benefits athletes’ skill sets for their primary sport, it can have major repercussions for their overall physical health. “They’re doing the same movement patterns over and over again, so their bodies start to break down,” said Johnson.
Excess repetition of movement means the “body triggers a systemic inflammatory response that starts to degrade and weaken the soft tissues … the muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments,” Johnson explained. This makes athletes more susceptible to both low level injuries and severe long term issues.
Lily Kung, a senior in Independent Study and runner on the Berkeley High School Cross Country team, has experienced overtraining injuries as extensive as shin splints and plantar fasciitis. She partially attributed this to a lack of rest: “I didn’t take any break days, so my body was never able to recover.” This non-stop mindset and the pressure to constantly improve causes athletes to push their bodies past their natural limits. “I felt a lot of pressure to become really muscular and in shape in order to be the best athlete,” said Welsh. She turned to the gym with the hopes of increasing her strength, which ultimately led to injury — “I overtrained the front of my body and my pecs got too strong and my back couldn’t hold my shoulders anymore … the simplest term for it is scapular winging,” said Welsh. “It causes a lot of shoulder pain when I swim, or shoot or pass.”
For many athletes, these injuries have brought serious consequences for their performance. “When you can’t go to practice every day, you start to lose … momentum.” Welsh commented on the detrimental effect her injury has had on her, “The pain has kept me from my full potential.”
Ultimately, coaches, responsible for guiding the development of young athletes healthily and positively, must strive to schedule time off and be aware of athletes’ limits. Following guidelines set by sports medicine professionals is an important first step in order to achieve this. For example, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), “A child’s age should equal the number of hours they should spend in training each week.” These restrictions should inform coaches in their approach to youth athletics. Awareness of these practices, along with a shift in mentality, are crucial in changing the current sports culture in regards to the pressure to overtrain.
For the 40 million children participating in the intense atmosphere of youth sports today, it is important to recognize that constant training aiming to craft kids into high-level players also takes a long lasting toll on their developing bodies.