Too much too soon: the new and dangerous culture of youth sports

My friend Nancy went for physical therapy for her back pain the other day, and was really surprised by what she saw there: the place was full of kids.

“Yeah, it’s like this now,” said the therapist when Nancy asked about it. “It’s the sports.”

It’s not that kids are getting clumsier or having more accidents. The injuries that are sending kids to physical therapy are overuse injuries. Kids these days are specializing in a sport as early as elementary school, and spending many more hours a week in practice than we ever did as kids—and we’re seeing the consequences.

In a newly-released study authored by Children’s Hospital Boston’s Mininder Kocher, MD, and Alison Field, ScD, researchers found that girls engaging in eight or more hours of high-impact activities (especially running, basketball, cheerleading and gymnastics) per week were twice as likely to have a stress fracture as those engaged in such activities for four hours or fewer. These stress fractures, if not detected and treated early, can lead to worse fractures, deformities and growth problems. Some may need surgery.

“We are seeing stress fractures more frequently in our pediatric and adolescent athletes,” says Kocher. “This likely reflects increased intensity and volume of youth sports. It is not uncommon to see young athletes participating in more than 20 hours of sports per week.”

My older son, Zack, stopped doing any other sport except swimming when he was 9 years old. A big part of the reason—really, the biggest part—was that he loved swimming. But there was also the reality that in order to be successful at it—make even the lowest level of championships, be in the top half at USA Swimming meets—he had to spend a lot of hours in the pool. That’s what all the other successful swimmers were doing, and Zack wanted to be successful. It didn’t leave time for other sports.

We were lucky; he didn’t have any injuries. He broke his wrist once, but that was in gym; as a swimmer, he didn’t know that you were supposed to overrun first base, not slide into it. But he did burn out. He hit a plateau in high school, and got really frustrated and discouraged. Swimming became a source of anxiety and exhaustion for him, not fun. He didn’t want to quit the team, but when he graduated from high school he left the sport behind.

“It’s understandable and commendable to want the best for our children, but somehow we’ve gotten it into our heads that in order to have the best they have to be the best—in school, in sports, in everything.”

Swimming fewer hours a week, and not swimming year-round, would have meant many fewer ribbons and medals for Zack. It would have meant being a recreational swimmer, not a competitive one. My husband and I would have been fine with that, but the coaches would have given him a hard time. He would have had a lesser status on the team, and that would have been hard for him. He wouldn’t have been chosen as captain, and he loved being captain.

See, that’s the thing. To decrease the number of overuse injuries, we will need to change the culture of youth sports. We can encourage parents to limit the number of hours their children practice and compete, and make sure they know that specializing early is dangerous. We can educate coaches. But unless we can get our culture to take a collective deep breath and let go of the idea that kids need to not just play sports but achieve in them, we will get nowhere.

This emphasis on achievement in sports is just one facet of the achievement culture problem in our country. It’s understandable and commendable to want the best for our children, but somehow we’ve gotten it into our heads that in order to have the best they have to be the best—in school, in sports, in everything. And it’s just not true. In fact, pushing to be the best can be bad for kids, physically and emotionally.

I think we need to start early with our kids and ourselves. We need to set different expectations and different goals. Don’t talk Harvard—talk college. Don’t talk A’s—talk trying their best. When it comes to sports, don’t talk winning—talk playing. I have a 5-year-old, so I have another chance at all this; I will do it with you. We’ll buck the trend together. We’ll be rebels, fighting for a cause.

And one by one, bit by bit, we will take back childhood for our children.

  • Efitz8899

    As a mom of four kids ages 10, 9, 7 and 5 I agree with almost everything you said. Kids are so overworked and overbooked by organized events whether it’s sports or other extra curricular activities that they are hardly have any time for creative independent play. The level of competitiveness nowadays is nothing like it was 30 years ago. Parents are afraid if their child sits out now then he or she will not be at the same level as other kids later. However, I am a firm believer that you never have bigger dreams or confidence in those dreams than when you are little. Why not Harvard? Why not all A’s? Why not President of the United States. Life will show them soon enough how challenging it all is. It’s our job as parents to taper those realizations with words of encouragement and support. But, we have to plant the seed first.

    • clairemccarthymd

      You have a point. And interestingly, when my son Zack and I emailed about this post (as the subject of it, he had editor’s rights), he said that he wouldn’t have changed a thing about his swimming experience. He said, “We shouldn’t be afraid of pushing ourselves and others to strive for success. Even at a young age, there are advantages to this, like constructing a solid work ethic early.” He went on to say, “On the other hand, I think that sports tends to overly focus on the results/final scores/final times.”

      Harvard only accepted about 6% of its applicants this year. I am certain that there were outstanding candidates in the 94% it rejected. Yes, we want our children to strive for success. But we want them to be healthy and happy, too. Key to that is keeping perspective, and understanding that there is far more to being a successful human being than all A’s or a Harvard acceptance. Like you say, children need our encouragement and support.

  • Hajarpa

    This article hits the nail on the head on something that’s been making me uneasy since i became a parent. I have noticed this culture of competitiveness is extreme here in the Northeast, especially in Boston and its suburbs. Although my daughter will be only 3 this month, I am already worried about her future. On the one hand, I want her to enjoy whatever it is she does recreationally — sports/dance/chess/reading/anything — without the pressure to excel. On the other hand, my husband is on the admissions committee of one of the local medical schools and knows first hand what it takes to be admitted nowadays (in addition to near perfect GPA, must show civic engagement, altruism, extra-curricular activities and sports, and excellence in all of them). What is a parent to do these days?

    After making the mistake of sending me daughter to Montessori school at age 2, I have vowed to myself to protect her childhood on her behalf. I want her to enjoy laughing, playing, being silly, being creative, honest, and pure — and adulthood will find her soon enough. I am planning to change her school and enroll her in only one activity at a time for the time being.

    The alarming thing is that when I see patients at Children’s, even an 8 year old can carry on a conversation so precocious, so eloquent, so ADULT, that it always makes me wonder what happened to this kid’s childhood?

  • Mike

    I grew up in another country and completely agree with the point about the achievement culture in the US. It is good to a point and lets not forget that, but comes at a cost. It creates a lot of stress and anxiety.

  • Maureen

    The thing I hate about youth sports is that it’s all or nothing. There is absolutely no room for a kid who just wants to have fun playing a sport. You can either go full out, or you are not wanted. My kids are not into team sports. Part of it is temperment, but part of it is that the few times they tried it, they spent the whole time being yelled at by coaches who were more interested in whether the kids won than whether or not they enjoyed it. By the age of 8 my kids had tried street hockey, soccer, baseball, and swimming, and ended up not being interested in pursuing any of them a second time. They have recently started doing Kung Fu, and they love it because they are encouraged, not belittled and ostracized.

  • Tami

    When I was a kid, we shot around at a basket on our roof for fun, and when we showed up for the first day of practice/try-outs in 7th grade, that was when we actually starting learning the game of basketball – skills, plays, etc. Now if by 7th grade a student hasn’t already been playing organized club basketball for at least a few years there is little hope of them even making the team. When I think of the time we have spent sitting in bleachers for my two sons already (5th and 6th graders) I seriously worry about what they are missing. So far, they wouldn’t have it any other way, but I can’t wait for a conversation 20 years in the future when they either thank me for letting them participate in this madness or they ask me incredulously how I could have let them waste their youth! Either way I will at least know if I was right or wrong…