Specialization in sports an issue for young athletes

By Casey Riley

Mercer County Athletic Trainer

My four year old recently started playing youth soccer. When the coach first called I was told she would have two games a week (Monday and Saturday) and two practice days (Tuesday and Thursday). My first thought was, “dang that’s a lot for a four year old.”

Thankfully, her team doesn’t actually meet that many days a week the majority of the time but it got me thinking about how different her and even my high schoolers childhood is different than mine was. Little league for me didn’t start until third grade, not preschool. But now, travel, select and AAU sports start near age 8. Kids spend any down time and summers playing an organized sport instead of kick ball and swinging in the back yard. Kids are also specializing in one sport younger and younger.

So what does this mean to me as an athletic trainer?

This means I’m seeing more and more overuse injuries at a younger and younger age. We are now seeing young kids needing elbow or shoulder surgery from pitching too much and trying to pitch the more difficult and skilled pitches at a young age, when their bodies aren’t equipped to handle it. Athletes are also burning out before they make it out of high school — they have played the same sport for so long they just get tired of playing it.

We as parents want our kids to be successful and we especially want kids to earn scholarships since college has gotten so expensive. Unfortunately, this means playing AAU or select and LOTS of travel, every weekend. They miss out on important events like prom and hanging out with their friends which are important time they need. Kids need free time. They need down time to do kid stuff instead of having every moment of every day scheduled out for them.

Athletes are falling apart and having issues that you normally wouldn’t see until they are in their mid-20s or 30s and now they are having those issues at 13 and 14. We want the best for our kids but what we really are doing is ruining them. The world of AAU and select has become such an important part of youth sports that we as parents feel obligated to get our kids involved but unfortunately we are now seeing the hazards of that decision.

Overall, I know parents are doing what is best for their kids but please try and remember that they are just kids and need some down time. They need play time that isn’t organized and time to just be kids. This is something that even as I patch up kids that have played the same sport since age 4, I have to remind myself as my own children get older. Kids need to be kids and sometimes sports need to take a back seat.