by Betty Taylor
When 19-year-old Kim Yu-Na of South Korea was preparing for the 2010 Winter Olympics, she wrote a series of essays about her experiences as a young athlete. According to news reports and Olympic commentators, Yu-Na wrote if she failed, her whole country would turn its back on her.
That’s a lot of pressure.
For some student athletes in the United States, the amount of “pressure” they are feeling to excel in sports can sometimes outweigh the true bliss of “just doing it.”
For parents, watching their kids enter into a highly competitive world of select leagues, training and testing is vastly different from the sports of their youth.
“It’s not like it was when I was growing up when you played multiple sports,” says Scott Croft, head sports performance director at Velocity Performance Sports in San Antonio. “Times have changed. Sometimes we see 12- or 13-year-olds being pressured to specialize in one sport at a younger age. I don’t think that is ideal.”
At Velocity Sports Performance, kids as young as 8 can begin coming in for sports training, to help with speed, body control and movement, says Croft.
“These may be some of the kids who are slower runners. But our focus here is to do training that is fun, and the goal is for them to be as good at the game as they want to be,” says Croft. That goal can sometimes be different from the goal of Mom and Dad, he says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children involved in sports should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills. Young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional physical, physiological and psychological demands from intense training and competition, according to the academy’s Web site, www.aap.org.
Croft says Andre Agassi’s revelations in a Sports Illustrated article, as well as in his autobiography I Hate Tennis released late last year, did not escape athletes, coaches and trainers.
In that article and in his book Agassi tells the story of how at a very early age he was pressured by his dad to excel at the sport, even though he didn’t like the game.
What many parents and athletes fail to realize is that depending on the sport, as few as 0.2 percent to 0.5 percent of high school athletes ever make it to the professional level, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That doesn’t mean young athletes shouldn’t dare to dream. It only means they should be playing sports for the right reasons.
“That’s great if their goal is to get motivated and to have fun. But if they are 14 and are looking to get a scholarship somewhere, that may not be the best motivation,” says Croft.
Young athletes who participate in a variety of sports have fewer injuries and play sports longer than those who specialize before puberty, according to the academy’s report. In addition, well-rounded, multi-sport athletes have the highest potential to achieve the goal of lifelong fitness and enjoyment of physical activity.
The goal at Velocity is to not only prevent that type of burnout, which Croft says he sometimes sees at the college level, but to continue to challenge student athletes in a fun way.
So how do parents know what amount of practice, sports training and camps are just the right fit for their children?
“I don’t believe there is a ‘magic’ age because every kid is different,” says Coach Chuck Caniford, athletic director and head football coach for New Braunfels High School. “When a child starts asking about the ‘extra’ things that they can do to get better is when I would start looking into these types of programs (sports training).”
One of the biggest concerns of parents, coaches and trainers is overtraining.
“Usually, you don’t really see any overtraining issues until high school. One of the signs that they are getting close to overtraining is if they are getting eight hours of sleep at night, and they are waking up still feeling tired. That may mean they need to cut something out.”
Dr. Eliot Young, with Sports Medicine Associates of San Antonio, says there is a fine line that separates “too much” from “adequate” training, especially in children. Many factors have to be considered, including the child’s age, size, individual natural ability, maturity to receive instruction and the quality and amount of supervision given.
Too much training at any age can result in overuse injuries, says Young.
Caniford agrees. “Overtraining is something that is very dangerous for kids,” he says. “Your body can only handle so much work before the performance begins to diminish.”
“These are typically tendonitis-type injuries at various joints. In children, their growth plates are still open, and are inherently weaker than the muscle-tendons that attach to them. This can cause a separation of the growing bone where the tendon attaches, commonly known as ‘apophysitis.’ We see these often at the knee, elbow and shoulders. In addition, overtraining can actually cause a stress fracture across the growth plate, necessitating stoppage of play and sometimes surgery if severe,” says Young.
Too little training can result in a lack of strength and coordination that can predispose young athletes to injury during competition. Injuries also can result from inexperience, Young says. Undertraining also can lead to muscle atrophy and decrease in bone mineral content, according to the academy.
Young says much debate has been given over the years as to whether a child can safely begin resistance or strength training.
“The latest evidence shows that a child who is appropriately supervised can increase their strength and agility before adolescence (ages 7 to 12) with moderate (not heavy) resistance and higher repetitions – 13 to 15 – while exercising two to three times a week,” says Young, adding that “adequate rest between sessions is essential to recovery at any age.”
Caniford says the value of rest is the one facet of a performance program that is most often overlooked.
“When you work out, you are essentially breaking the muscle down,” he says. “With proper rest, the muscle repairs itself and ends up stronger. It is absolutely critical that if a child is participating in multiple training programs (i.e. school program and private program), that the child communicate to their trainer what they are doing in each program.”
For example, if an (older) child does heavy lifting on one particular muscle group on a Monday, they need to communicate that to their trainer so that they do not do the same thing the following day, Caniford says.
Young says current recommendations for performance enhancement state that training twice a week to a maximum of 10 to 20 hours per week is adequate for enhancing performance.
“But this needs to be balanced with the age, maturity and desires of the child, not the desires of the parent!” emphasizes Young.
At Velocity, younger athletes are able to come in and train as much as three times per week during off season. While they are playing a sport, they might come in one or two times a week, Croft says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines for young athletes:
• Limit training in any one sport to five days per week, with at least one day off from all organized physical activity
• Take two to three months per year off from each individual sport
• Limit increases in training time, the number of repetitions or the total distance to 10 percent weekly
• Join only one team per season.
To prevent burnout, the academy also recommends:
• Keeping workouts interesting, with age-appropriate games and training, to keep practice fun
• Focusing on wellness and teaching athletes to be in tune with their bodies for cues to slow down or alter their training methods.
Betty Taylor is a New Braunfeld-based writer and mother of two.