By Mary Kay Jessen CRM Endurance Coaching
Most athletes know that overtraining and the underlying stress to compete at a high level can lead to a host of issues, including injury, mental health disorders, and burnout from a sport they once loved. Thanks to athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, the mental health aspect of sports has become less taboo. How is it that young athletes are finding themselves in a state of panic, questioning the sport they love, and is there a healthy approach to competition we've been missing all along?
According to Stanford Children's Health, "more than 3.5 million children ages 14 and younger get hurt annually playing sports." With pressure from family, peers, and coaches, many young athletes find themselves returning to a sport prematurely following an injury, being urged to play through the pain, setting up a potentially catastrophic chain of events both mentally and physically. We must learn to break this cycle and ease the burden on our youth. Being an endurance athlete with two children of my own, it's challenging not to let the dictatorship style of coaching I was exposed to as a child carry over into my children's lives. I enjoy pushing my body to its limit, but I emphasize the importance of mindfully approaching athletics when speaking to my daughters about competition.
We are all familiar with the idea of living vicariously through our children. While most of us would swear that we would never be "that" parent, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and get swept up into the world of overly involved parenting. Little by little, we unknowingly push more, perhaps signing our kids up for additional practices or private coaching. Or we might begin to encourage more training in the offseason to see how extra repetitions improve their performance. It can quickly snowball from there to tryouts, new teams, strength and conditioning, and early specialization in one sport or activity.
Children, unlike adults, lack the tools and self-confidence to advocate for themselves. While many kids are initially excited about the attention and accolades for their achievements, that enthusiasm often fades over time. With the demanding schedule comes more significant stress and anxiety as the intensity and pressure mount. Children may worry about disappointing others, being dropped from a team, or being excluded from a higher level of play. And some are taught to ignore the discomfort as a sign of strength.
Elementary school children are learning to measure themselves against their peers rather than focusing on their personal growth.
The pressure only increases as children grow, with the increased popularity of travel teams, year-round sports, and private coaching. It's becoming a badge of honor to compete and train hours a day and on the weekends and become a specialized athlete with hopes of a scholarship or elusive opportunities beyond high school. But what are the consequences of this snowball effect?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, up to 70% of children are quitting organized sports before the age of 13 due to emotional/mental health concerns, stress, burnout, and injury. Not only is the increase of early specialization causing issues in the short term, but many of these individuals are at higher risk for physical and psychological issues long term as well.
Recently, a fellow parent on my daughter's swim team stated that my daughter would need to "commit soon" if she wants to have a career as a swimmer. Coaches have told us that once a week wasn't enough to "get to the next level." My daughter is EIGHT. What sort of career does an eight-year-old have? And why does it matter what level she is? If she's happy and having fun, isn't that enough? She loves swimming, but she's not super competitive or driven; she simply loves being in the water. It's unfortunate to watch so many parents get notably upset at meets if their child doesn't win their event.
As parents, coaches, and community, how can we help children find enjoyment and balance in sports?
Set limits on how often they can practice each day and week and encourage extended time off to reduce physical strain and mental fatigue
Encourage children to explore new opportunities, such as less intense teams or trying out for a new sport or extracurricular activity.
Stress the importance of rest and recovery - ensure they get sufficient sleep, and eating enough calories to support a growing body
Reiterate that they are more than their sport or activity and that their identity as an athlete is not the only part of "who" they are
Discuss the intangible benefits of sports such as character development, leadership, losing gracefully, supporting teammates and competitors, and work ethic
Designate regular days away from sports for time with family and friends to recharge and just back to having fun
Seek out medical professionals with experience working with youth. Don't hesitate to change who your child sees if you feel like it isn't a good fit.
Help your child understand the importance of strength training designed for their body and sport - it's more than just heavyweights and building muscles.
Teach them to speak up and to listen to their bodies - that it's OK to ask for a break, to share concerns about aches and pains, and to be honest about how they are doing as a whole person
Youth sports help children learn valuable communication skills, teamwork, the importance of commitment, and leadership. The health and wellness benefits through regular physical activity will promote well-rounded growth, development, and it will help reduce the risk of potential health concerns later in life. As parents and adults, it's our responsibility to create boundaries and recognized signs of injury, emotional strain, and burnout. If intervention is needed, encourage time off and seek advice from additional professionals with youth sports expertise. Youth sports should be fun, and the happiness shouldn't revolve around medals and accolades.