If there is one question I get asked more than any other about kids and sports it is how much sports is enough? Or, to put it another way, is there such a thing as too much sports? You wouldn't think there could be such a thing as kids playing too much sports, what with the number of overweight and out of shape kids in this country, but there honestly is a point where a child is participating at a level beyond what his or her growing body can handle. In the end, finding the "right" amount is a question of finding the right balance. A good place to start in finding that balance is to look at the guidelines, based on age and developmental stage, developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.
But before I outline the official recommendations for each age, I have to warn you: these recommendations are likely not what you are doing or what your community is advocating. At the moment, kids are being pushed harder than what the American Academy of Pediatrics and other sports experts are recommending. For now, just mull over the official recommendations; then we’ll tackle the question of how you can get closer to what your child really needs given a youth sports culture that makes it difficult to even come close to these standards.
Preschoolers are a wonderful and energetic group. But, developmentally, they are a still a bit like an unmolded mound of clay. They are still learning to move their bodies and have an unending need to explore the world. Often, there is a huge disconnect between what their minds want them to do and what their bodies are capable of doing. A good preschool program will be a well-tuned mix of skill-building and fun. This group needs to blow off steam and laugh. They need to learn while doing and exploring. The best programs will teach skills and reinforce those skills without your child really knowing they are being taught!
The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, has these recommendations for preschool sports programs:
- All preschool children should participate regularly in a form of physical activity appropriate for their developmental level and physical health status.
- Emphasis should be placed on promotion of physical activity as a natural and lifelong activity of healthy living. Goals of accelerating motor development to maximize subsequent sports ability are inappropriate and futile, and should be discouraged.
- Free play designed to provide opportunities for each child to develop fundamental motor skills and to reach his or her potential at his or her own rate is preferable to structured sessions.
- Readiness to participate in organized sports should be determined individually, based on the child’s (not the parent’s) eagerness to participate and subsequent enjoyment of the activity. Children are unlikely to be ready before age 6 years.
- In structured sports programs, goals of participation and enjoyment should be emphasized rather than those of competition and victory. Sessions should be supervised by adults knowledgeable about the specific needs and limitations of preschool children. Setting, format, rules, and equipment should be modified accordingly.
- Pediatricians should assess preschoolers’ physical activity level and time spent in passive activities, such as television watching, by incorporating relevant questions into the medical history during health assessment visits. Appropriate physical activity should be promoted by counseling parents, teachers, and coaches.
- Parents and other family members should be encouraged to serve as role models for their children by participating in regular physical activity programs themselves. In addition, physical activities that parents can do with young children should be encouraged.
Elementary School and Tweens
The elementary school and tween years are an interesting time for kids in general but especially for sports development. The rapid growth makes some kids seem like superstars while others can barely kick a ball. Studies have demonstrated no correlation between prepubertal sports success and postpubertal sports success. What this really means is kids who are superstars during this period not only may not be superstars when their hormones kick in but other kids who once had no apparent athletic skills may suddenly shine as they grow into their bodies during puberty.
This is a time where skill building and development of the entire body is important. The push for specialization driven by some of these kids becoming young superstars is creating a dramatic rise in overuse injuries in this group of kids, as well as emotional burn out.
The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends the following for these kids:
- Organized sports programs for preadolescents should complement, not replace, the regular physical activity that is a part of free play, child-organized games, recreational sports, and physical education programs in the schools. Regular physical activityshould be encouraged for all children whether they participate in organized sports or not.
- Pediatricians are encouraged to help assess developmental readiness and medical suitability for children and preadolescents to participate in organized sports and assist in matching a child’s physical, social, and cognitive maturity with appropriate sports activities.
- Pediatricians can take an active role in youth sports organizations by educating coaches about developmental and safety issues, monitoring the health and safety of children involved in organized sports, and advising committees on rules and safety.
- Pediatricians are encouraged to take an active role in identifying and preserving goals of sports that best serve young athletes.
- determine the optimal time for children to begin participating in organized sports;
- identify safe and effective training strategies for growing and developing athletes;
- educate youth sports coaches about unique needs and characteristics of young athletes;
- develop effective injury prevention strategies.
- Programs need to be structured to account for a child's development. So, preschool programs have to recognize that preschoolers can really only focus for 15 minutes before they need free play. Older kids can focus for longer periods of time so the organized portion of the program can be longer. A good program will have a balance of structured and unstructured activities for all kids since kids of all ages need some unstructured play, too.
Older kids can handle more sports but programs still need to focus on self-esteem and empowerment. Fun still needs to be a large component, as does active participation by all members of the team. With so many kids getting reduced playing time on some teams as funa and skill development take a back seat to winning, one could easily argue that this point is not being advanced by most of our kids' youth sports programs.
Fun: The Missing Ingredient
Now that you have read these official recommendations, you can see where most youth sports programs fall short. The most blatant aspect missing for all our kids, at all ages, is the fun factor. Our children deserve fun and safe playing experiences on the field and more free time to explore the world off the field. We have to be sure they have a balance between structured and unstructured play and a childhood that takes into account all their needs. A focus on one to the exclusion of the other will have negative consequences. Keep that in mind and you’ll know when your child needs a redirect in their sports game plan.
Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD is a pediatrician living in the Boston area and the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Pediatrics Now.