The Importance of Age-Appropriate Sports
By Sandy Alexander
With such a wide range of organized sports now available to children, families need to make sound decisions about what athletic activities are appropriate, based on an individual child’s developmental stage, personality, and physical ability.
There was a time, recalls D. Thomas Ross, when the main outlet for sports for many children involved them organizing their own games of backyard baseball or driveway basketball, and they worked out the rules among themselves.
“Children playing amongst themselves is almost done away with in this day and age,” he notes, adding that parents often are looking to organizations to provide opportunities to “build young people’s skills, improve their health and wellness, and get them interested in sports.”
As executive director of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association, Ross helps professionals and volunteers across the state run organized activities for practically every sport and every age level—from tumbling for toddlers, to baseball clinics for elementary school-aged kids, to triathlon training for teenagers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness concurs with Ross’ observation. In a 2001 policy statement, the Council notes that the increase of organized sports is taking the place of unstructured play. It also recognizes an accompanying trend of younger and younger children getting involved in organized sports.
According to the Council, children benefit from these sports by increasing their physical activity and helping them acquire team skills. Also, the rules established for organized sports help reduce the risk of injury among the players. Even so, the Council emphasizes that the demands and expectations of any athletic activity need to match each child’s level of readiness.
“Basic motor skills, such as throwing, catching, kicking, and hitting a ball, do not develop sooner simply as a result of introducing them to children at an earlier age,” reads the Council’s statement. “Teaching or expecting these skills to develop before children are developmentally ready is more likely to cause frustration than long-term success in the sport.”
Too Much, Too Soon
As a doctor at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Amy Valasek has seen how participating in organized sports can help children build confidence, provide interaction with other children, and improve physical fitness.
Unfortunately, she has also seen young athletes with damaged shoulders and elbows, stress fractures in their spines, concussions, and other injuries from overdoing an athletic activity at too young an age.
She adds that children can also be frustrated or burned out by athletic experiences that are too intense.
“Expecting them to train early, train hard is not helpful to young kids,” says Valasek, a primary care physician who specializes in sports medicine and pediatrics. “The risk of too much, too fast is not only injury, but also [damage] to their esteem.”
Acknowledging that kids vary in their physical and emotional development, Valasek says that, generally, age 6 is an appropriate time to join a group sports activity, while age 12 is often the earliest a child should start specializing in a particular sport. Contact sports, such as football, are not a good fit for young children who do not have the skill set to tackle correctly, she adds, noting an increase in head injuries in youth football leagues among children between the ages of 6 and 9.
Also, for young children, which sport they get involved with is not as important as the approach of a particular program.
Ross says that parents should first look at how a sports program promotes good sportsmanship as well as examine the policies, such as giving equal playing time, that encourage kids to have fun and get involved.
“I think the leadership is critical,” says Ross, adding that professional leaders and program volunteers need “some understanding of young people and the right way to encourage their participation.”
As youth get older and become involved with more competitive teams, the role of adult coaches continues to be a key factor in how enjoyable—and how healthy—the experience is.
“Parents wouldn’t enroll their child in a school that didn’t have trained teachers, so it makes no sense to allow their child to play on a team with a volunteer coach who has no training in working with a group of children,” says John Engh, chief operating officer for the nonprofit National Alliance for Youth Sports, a leading advocate for positive and safe sports and activities for children, based in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Several organizations, including Engh’s, recommend background checks for coaches and volunteers. Engh believes that formal evaluations can be useful, as well as parents’ views of how a coach is interacting with the children.
“Kids are there to learn, play, and have fun in a safe environment,” says Engh. “They should not be treated like miniature professionals.”
Engh also recommends that parents expose their children to a variety of sports so they can develop a broad range of skills and see what each activity is like first-hand.
“By participating in a variety of sports at the [recreational] level, they’ll be more likely to find those sports they are interested in sticking with for years to come,” he says.
Increased Overuse, Increased Injuries
Varying the athletic routine is also a safety issue, particularly as youth get serious about a particular sport and may be encouraged to train more intensively throughout the year.
In 2007, the AAP Council reported that the increase in youth participation in sports corresponded to an increase in overuse injuries, with up to 50 percent of injuries in pediatric sports medicine falling into that category.
Overuse is particularly serious for young athletes, reports the AAP, because their growing bones “cannot handle as much stress as the mature bones of adults.”
The organization’s report recommends that youth limit a single sporting activity to a maximum of five days per week with at least one day off from organized physical activity and at least two to thee months per year away from their particular sport.
Valasek endorses those guidelines with her patients and offers another important piece of advice: “Don’t ignore pain.”
While adults may not worry too much about a muscle strain, she explains that pain in children under 12 often indicates a real problem, as their bodies are still growing and at risk for serious injury.
Finally, while parents play an important role in monitoring their children’s health and the coaches’ performance, they also need to be aware of their own behavior. And as much as they do to help their children choose appropriate activities, a policy statement from the AAP Council notes that they can also be a source of “pressure to compete and succeed.”
As young people take on more serious training and greater commitments such as traveling teams or advanced programs, “it is important that it’s the decision of the child, and not the parent pushing the youngster to a more competitive level that they’re not ready for, or interested in being a part of,” says Engh. “If a child’s enthusiasm isn’t there, the experience will be a miserable one…and they’ll likely be turned off from the sport for good.”
To get started in any sport, Ross stresses that the emphasis should be “letting them get out there, letting them play.”
And, he adds, there’s nothing wrong with children “trying a variety of different experiences to see what clicks with them.” BC
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. April 2011