It’s that time of year again when we are deep in the sporting season and the winter blues are well and truly upon us. Within the clinic, what is also upon us is the increase in the presentation of young children that we are seeing for pain and injury. Call it what you may (it is most commonly thought of as “growing pains”) what the real issue comes down to is the management of loads in younger, skeletally immature bodies. As we enter the second half of the competitive winter sports season, this is when many aches and pains can arise.

Benefits of Sport for Children

Sport is such an important part of a child’s life. Other than the obvious physical health benefits, we know that participation in sport enhances motor skill development, balance and coordination, fosters lifelong friendships, improves self-esteem and confidence, develops resilience and perseverance, aids stress relief and mental health, encourages healthy lifestyle habits … and the list goes on. It is so important we continue to foster the love of sports that so many kids have.

Concerns about Early Dropout from Sports

What is far more concerning than the aches and pains that present to our clinic, is the fact that so many young children are lost to sport too soon.

Recent research shows that young adolescents, especially girls, can find sport “stressful” and that 50% stop participating in sport between the age of 15-19 years.

Balancing Sporting Commitments and Well-Being

With the incredible number of sporting programs and opportunities available, as parents we often find ourselves navigating a delicate balance between encouraging the interests of our children, trying hard to maximise their potential, and safeguarding their well-being. While it’s natural to want our children to excel in their chosen sports, it’s equally important to recognize the potential risks of overloading them with too many activities, especially at a young age. It still amazes me when a younger person comes in for treatment and tells me how much they are doing – the list of their sporting commitments makes me wonder how they fit school in!

The Impact of Multiple Sporting Commitments

Not only is it local club commitments, it is also school, representative level, state level, national level, specialised training programs for kids with talent. And all of this is often just with a single sport. It is not unusual for training/game commitment times to more than double the days of the week.

To me, this begs two obvious questions:

  1. How much load is too much load?
  2. Does specialisation in sport at a young age correlate to a greater statistical chance of being an elite older athlete?

The first question is impossible to answer with a blanket rule. Every person is so unique, and different bodies can handle different loads, and each sport produces different load challenges. Certainly in the lower age groups of 8–12 years of age, I believe one organised sporting activity a day is enough. Kids of this age are naturally very active, and might spend much of their school free time running around. If you add a bout of school sport, a club training session, a specialised program session, then the day can quite easily be full of activity. And that’s if they’re only doing the one sport!

Debating Early Specialisation in Sports

The second question is also a great topic for a robust debate. I am not an advocate of “specialisation programs” in this young age group of 8–12 year olds. Whilst talent identification and elite training programs sound great, do they really increase the chances of success?

Insights from Experts on Early Specialisation

I listened to an interesting talk delivered by Wayne Goldsmith*3, an International sports coaching expert, whose job it was between 1992 and 2000 to target young athletes and get them into specialty programs in order to bolster the Australian team for the 2000 Olympics. He is strong in his sentiments regarding early specialisation with statements like

“specialising them too early is a road to doom” and “physical talent is a poor indicator of long term success.

Research Findings on Junior and Senior Athletes

One systematic review*4 published in the journal Sports Medicine, studied over 60,000 junior and senior athletes and found the following:

  • Few elite juniors later achieved an equivalent competition level at senior age, and few elite seniors had previously achieved an equivalent competition level at junior age.
  • 89.2% of international-level U17/18 juniors failed to reach international level as seniors and 82.0% of international-level seniors had not reached international level as U17/18 juniors.

Comparing World-Class and National-Class Athletes

Another systematic review*5 with over 9000 athletes included found the following:

  • Compared with their national-class counterparts, adult world-class athletes had more childhood/adolescent multi-sport coach-led practice, a later main-sport start, less main-sport practice, and slower initial progress (underlining is mine)!

Rethinking the Pressure of Early Specialisation

With a relatively low correlation between elite junior athletes progressing to elite senior athletes, perhaps the pressure can be off us as parents to think that our children must participate in these programs at very young ages in order to achieve elite adult sporting status. Easier said than done I know, as it is incredibly difficult as parents to deny your child a chance to participate in a selective sporting program or team. I don’t think the issue is with the parents, I think the issue lies in the fact there are too many elite, specialist, and representative programs available to kids at too young an age!

The Mental and Emotional Toll on Children

The pressure to excel in a sport can take a toll on children’s mental and emotional well-being. The relentless pursuit of perfection, the constant competitive environment, and the fear of failure can lead to stress, anxiety, depression – and injury! There is a large body of evidence to support the theory that participating in multiple different sports and activities as a child (and not specialising too early in a single sport) can have greater outcomes on the chances of sporting success (and remaining involved) later in life. It’s essential for us as parents to prioritize our children’s holistic development, foster a positive attitude towards physical activity and promote a healthy balance between sports, academics, and leisure.

Promoting a Balanced Approach to Sports

By adopting a balanced approach to children’s sporting activities, we can cultivate a lifelong love for physical activity, promote healthy growth and development, protect our children from the pitfalls of overloading, and maybe even enhance their chances of becoming elite at a later age. This is the age for fun, not intensity.

I’ll finish with some more words from Wayne Goldsmith to parents and coaches:

“take time to build character, and values, and virtues, and integrity, and respect, and discipline, and all the things as a human being that we know will underpin their success in the long term”

Anthony Lance

SSPC Physiotherapist

References: available upon request