The Increase in Youth Sport Injuries: Is it a Problem?

In recent years, there has been ongoing talk amongst coaches and administrators in youth sport about the apparent increase in injuries being sustained by young athletes between the ages of 14 and 18. Bone breaks, muscle strains, ligaments tears, concussions and non-sport related illnesses (ie. mono and flus), you name it, there seems to be more of it happening all the time.

So why is this happening? Is this a specialization problem, a multi-sport problem or something else? I would like to open some discussion on this topic with my blog audience and challenge you to think and respond.

Is it specialization? In my book, The Hovering Game, I speak about “The Theory of Extra Everything”, talking about the pros and cons of specializing in only one sport. Starting too early in age could be the problem. Is it really necessary to have a child in a sport academy at age 13 or younger? Now I’m not talking about gymnastics or other early adoption sports that persist with a younger maturing age competitors. I’m talking about traditional team sports where athletes mature physically much later in their teenage years on the road to adulthood. How young should they be to warrant practicing 4 times a week for almost the entire calendar year and in just one sport? Many elite sport programs do a good job balancing traditional practices and competititons with pre-hab/physical training, warm-up/cooldown routines, sport psychology and nutritional guidance, following the LTAD model (long term athlete development) developed by Sport Canada. But when you start before grade 9 or 13 years of age, you may be setting your child up for future health issues. And even with the best intentions for the older kids, the potential for over training between their high school, club, provincial team and private coaching is daunting. The intent by all of the aforementioned is to share with each coach the athlete’s training schedule to avoid overtraining, but it is often not practiced in the real world. So, is specialization the problem, what do you think?    

IMG_0883 copy.JPG

Is it multi-sport participation? When we hear some of the great athletes speak about their past, like Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, they talk about when they were kids, how they used to play a multitude of sports throughout the year. So were they on the right track? Maybe they were, but maybe the risk is in the misunderstanding of what they meant by multi-sport participation. In those days, yes most kids practiced the art of multi-sport, however, rarely did one sport cross over into the other. Football or soccer was in the fall, hockey in the winter and baseball was in the spring. Summer was usually a break from sports with family vacations. Nowadays, multi-sport means cross over sport participation, like running from a basketball game to a soccer practice or having to play in an icebreaker baseball tourney the same weekend as the provincial volleyball championships. In this all too common practice, the athlete has no chance to rest, hydrate or refuel (and if they do it is on the run). They often step right into the next activity with little or no warm-up. Could this be why we seem to have more injuries? Our volleyball club endorses and supports multi-sport participation to encourage (non-volleyball) muscle stimulation, enhancement of competitive senses and simply a break or change of pace for the body and mind. But the constant competition to lengthen the season by all sports may be creating an environment that increases the odds of injury. What do you think?

DSCN5533 copy.jpg

Is it something else? Maybe it is the extreme from the hours of sedentary behaviours like internet, gaming, TV and smartphone activities to hard core sport training for athletes. There is no in between, no walking (kids are driven everywhere) and no ease of transition. It’s all or nothing. Maybe it is their dietary choices. Everyone “speaks” eating healthy, but are they? Take a look at what kids are eating at their competitions. Sure, they bring vegetables and fruits, but see how many processed foods and sugar based snacks are in their lunches as well. How many kids eat a regular healthy breakfast in the morning (if any breakfast at all)? Do they drink enough water? Try checking matching their sudden cranky behaviour with the last time they nourished their body with protein or liquids. Maybe it’s under the under reporting of injuries? When you ask your child if they are hurt from a recent fall in their sport, do they pretend they are okay when really they aren’t? How do you or the coaches assess the injury? Does the coaching staff follow concussion protocols or just assume they are okay because the athlete or parent said so? Regardless of the injury, coaches and parents need to have a heightened awareness of the child’s immediate post injury behaviours to ensure they aren’t hurt more then they lead us to believe. Better safe than sorry in most cases is the best approach. Maybe it’s helicopter parenting? Are the parents pushing their kids beyond what their bodies can endure? What if it is all just a media hype? Maybe we are such an overreacting, instant communication society (social media) that we think there is an increasing problem, when in fact it is the same as it was in the old days? What do you think?

My thoughts. In my opinion, I think it is a combination of all of the above. It is partially over specializing, partially a misunderstanding of how to benefit from multi-sport activities and the millennial culture of activity extremes, nutritional health practices, lack of injury diagnosis comprehension, injury exaggerations and helicoptering parenting. However, in all cases, each situation has a uniqueness to the athlete’s situation. It could be any of the above or more. I am sure there have been many studies written on these subjects that support or attack my thoughts, but I would welcome any feedback.

Final note. Let’s bring back fun into sport shall we? Participating in sport is supposed to be fun, and it is! Thanks for listening.