As we well and truly find ourselves entrenched in a “normal” sporting season again, it is time to reflect upon a topic that is important to talk about, one that the physio’s at SSPC find themselves confronted with on a regular basis – how much is too much sport? It’s an interesting conversation because we do hear a lot about the issues of obesity, inactivity, and screen time in children and adolescents, which really stems from an underactivity in this age group. But like most statistics that are thrown at us in life, there’s “the other end of the spectrum” which tends to be forgotten, and in this case refers to the kids that are overactive!

Can a young person really be overactive, given the limitless amount of energy they seem to have stored? Certainly, as we get older we can definitely be overactive, pushing ourselves beyond our body’s capacity to cope with the loads we put through it. But for kids I feel it is not so much an issue with overactivity, but issues with early specialisation and over intensity, and these are the points I want to get across in this article.
To get to the bottom of my concerns about young athletes in sport, we must firstly look at a few definitions:
• Young Athlete: The most commonly accepted term of young athlete is one that is under 18 years of age.
• Sport Specialisation: basically this means that an athlete is training in one sport for the majority of a calendar year, at the exclusion of other sports. Traditionally this has been more in non-seasonal sports such gymnastics, calisthenics and ballet, but is now tipping over into sports such as basketball and netball and even football (with longer and longer pre seasons) where the majority of the year’s training and competition is taken up with a single sport.
• Early Specialisation: so this is where it gets important! “Early” is pretty much accepted as being the age of 12 and under. And with the enormous variety of options open to children, it seems they can begin their sporting life almost as soon as they can walk and start to specialise at a very young age.

To help us determine if a young athlete has specialised, the Australian Sports Medicine Collaborative (in partnership with the AIS) has come up with 3 simple questions:

  1. Does the athlete play or train for more than eight months per year in a particular sport?
  2. Does the athlete choose a main single sport?
  3. Has the athlete stopped playing other sports to focus on a single sport?
    Answering “yes” to the above probably means your athlete has specialised in a sport. And if we add the U/12 age group to this, we need to be careful.
    A topic I have always found fascinating is the “nature vs nurture” discussions regarding great athletes – are we born to be great (nature) or can we train to be great (nurture)? For years there has been the reasonably well known “10,000 hours rule” which stated it “takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials”. This theory has been well and truly debunked as there is so much uniqueness amongst us all. The 10,000 hour rule also has a few flaws, the most notable being:
  • The theory assumes that everyone is practising perfectly, or at least to the same level. Just go and watch your kids train at footy and you’ll see very clearly that all training isn’t equal – an hour of training for one kid can be at a very different level to the hour of another kid!
  • If 10,000 hours was such a key criteria to being great, wouldn’t a lot more of us be great? I’ve seen many people devote 10,000 hours and more to their sport but not become great (or elite, anyway)!
  • This theory was never originally targeted at sport. The 10,000 hour rule was actually based on the study of violin students at a music academy in Berlin, but has since somehow found its way to being applied to sportspersons!
    There’s a few factors that potentially lead to this overspecialisation in young athletes. Firstly, like the 10,000 hours rule, it seems that there is still a belief that the more a young athlete does, the better they must become. In other words, early sport specialisation must lead to an increased chance of success in sport. However, there is actually no evidence to suggest that achieving elite status in adult sport is related to early specialisation. In fact, the evidence tends to lean more towards suggesting that athletes are more likely to be successful in their chosen sport if they retain a broad sporting base (eg non specialised) at least up until the age of 12.
    The second factor I believe that leads to this early and over specialisation is just opportunity. Our kids have such enormous possibility and opportunity. There’s so much sport, so many levels, so many pathways, and so many ways a young athlete reach “junior elite” levels. Let’s just take basketball (for example) – by the time a young athlete has played school basketball, domestic basketball, squad/representative basketball, and state basketball there’s no choice but to specialise as there is simply no time left to do anything else! And the problem becomes that the school coach wants their best players training and playing, so does domestic, so does rep and obviously so does state!
    What’s the problem with early specialisation from my perspective? Well, if you put aside the facts that early specialisation doesn’t really contribute to a better chance of reaching elite adult levels in that sport, my big concern is injury risk. There is some evidence to suggest that young athletes with overuse injuries are more likely to be highly specialised than uninjured athletes. The chronic overuse conditions (such as Severs Condition, Osgood Schlatters Condition, tendon problems etc) are more likely to be found in that specialised young athlete. Just from my experience at SSPC, it seems that some young athletes are doing more and more activity within the same sport, with higher expectations and higher demands and minimal downtime for their growing, vulnerable body’s to recover.
    Just as concerning as the potential injury risk, there is also some evidence that early sport specialisation may lead to:
    a. Lower overall perception of health,
    b. Earlier cessation of sporting activity and possible burnout,
    c. Less fun derived from playing sport,
    So what does this all mean? My suggestions are listed below:
  1. Ask yourself the question in relation to your young athlete: are they training and playing a single sport for greater than 8 months a year, at the expense of other sports? If so, at least be wary of any aches and pains they complain of and see a physio quickly to get on top of any conditions that may become chronic.
  2. Don’t get tricked with the thought that more training and more intense skill development in the young kids is going to give them a greater chance of success in their chosen sport – it doesn’t!
  3. Try and find at least a couple of days a week where there is nothing scheduled. Rest days and recovery days are not only necessary, I think of them as “performance enhancing days” because it enables the athlete to be better prepared for their next session.
  4. Some form of cross training and varied physical activity is great – not only as a different type of stress on their body, but to enhance motor skill development. Different sports and different activities help develop a wider range of skills, and this wider range of skills can really help them enormously when back in their preferred sporting activity.
  5. If you are in control of young athletes (eg coaching), try and be aware of the athlete’s total weekly loads. Young athletes should not be playing and training at maximum intensity and duration for multiple teams across most days of every week.
  6. Above all, is there time for your young athlete to be having fun? Sport for the 12 and under age group should be fun, and it should be varied. Free time and free play are great – physically and mentally.
    If we can just be encouraging a delay in sport specialisation until after the age of 12, or even until late adolescence, you may find your young athlete is much happier, has less injuries, has a greater chance of later sport success, and is still in the sport by early adulthood!

Anthony Lance
SSPC Physiotherapist

References available on request