How Not to Sweat Youth Sports

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How parents, coaches and community can support young student-athletes in today’s competitive athletic environment 


IT’S WELL KNOWN THAT participation in athletics can have a positive impact on youth and adolescent wellbeing. For years, research has shown that participation in youth sports improves academic performance and reduces the risk of depression, not to mention the physical benefits of regular exercise and life skills learned. 

“There are so many things kids learn from sports,” says Meghan Duffy, a physical therapist at Coastal Pediatric Therapies, elite runner, run coach and yoga teacher. “Accountability, discipline, patience; how to win and lose; how to respect people.” 

Yet, when it comes to youth sports, there is a risk of playing too much, too hard. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), half of pediatric athletic injuries are related to overuse rather than accidents — a rate nearly double that of Canadian youth. With this level of intensity, it comes as no surprise then that the AAP also reports that 70% of youth will discontinue playing organized sports by age 13. The prevailing theory as to why kids are quitting: the physical and mental toll of increased pressure to specialize in a single sport — and win. 

How can families ensure their kids reap the benefits of organized sports without treading into the territory of physical or mental harm? What can families, coaches and communities do to better prepare young student-athletes for lifelong physical and mental wellness?

Young women runners at the starting blocks

Time for Rest 

Brian Tuten is the manager of sports medicine at St. Joseph’s/Candler and head athletic trainer at Benedictine Military School. He says he frequently sees overuse injuries, and most of the time they are the result of a parent pushing a young athlete to train too hard. 

“It’s a big problem,” Tuten says. “Parents have these kids doing extra work, like a heavy lifting program at a gym. They are double-dipping, thinking it’s going to make their student-athlete better, but it’s holding them back.” 

Duffy also encounters many overuse injuries in her pediatric PT and coaching practices. Premature sports specialization — playing one sport all year at too young of an age — is at the root of the problem, she says. 

“Kids learn by moving,” Duffy explains. “Their bones are softer, and their growth plates aren’t fused. They need to move in a variety of ways. Constant, repetitive motions cause injuries. Kids should not be getting tendonitis or stress fractures. That’s when we know it’s time to find a wider variety of activities to turn on different muscles and different movement patterns and incorporate rest.”

Tuten says his “golden rule” is two months off of the primary sport each year, all at once or segmented. The AAP’s recommendation is for children and young adults to take one month off from a sport at least three times per year for both physical and psychological recovery. During that time, a young athlete can and should stay active but gets a break from the repetitive motions that cause overuse — as well as the pressures of competition.

“This is why playing multiple sports is such a great experience,” Duffy says. “I’ve played sports where I’ve been the best player, and we won all the time and it was awesome. And I’ve played sports where I was the worst player, and we lost all the time and it was less awesome. I learned so much from both but more from the latter.” 

Young men playing soccer

A Healthy Game Plan

No matter what sport a young athlete is playing, it’s important to support them in the development of lifelong healthy habits off the field, court or course as well. “We talk with our athletes a lot about how to hydrate, how to take in enough calories, sleep, rest, recovery, etc.,” says Tuten. As a trainer and a parent, he acknowledges that teaching a high school kid with schoolwork and a smartphone to eat right and get enough sleep is hard, but it’s critical. 

Lack of sleep and improper diet can affect a young athlete’s mental as well as physical health. Considering that less than half of respondents in the 2022 NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study reported that they would feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on their campus, it’s reasonable to assume that children and adolescents won’t always ask for help when they need it, either. 

Young woman diving to hit a volleyball

Eyes on the Goal 

“Coaches, trainers and parents need to know their athletes,” says Tuten. “Is someone dragging or experiencing mood changes? Did they stay up late studying for tests or is it something else? How are they speaking to you, compared with normal?” When watching for burnout, stress or injury, says Tuten, it’s about paying attention and making sure they know they have value beyond their athletic capabilities.

“We can’t push them to love anything,” Tuten says. “That’s on them. So just support them. Hey, if this is what you love, then that’s what we’ll do. If you don’t, then we won’t do it.” 

“The most important thing to emphasize with young athletes is the separation of self and sport,” says Duffy. “When you’re young and you’re a soccer player and all of the sudden you can’t play soccer anymore, who are you? I talk to inner 12-year-old me all the time. Now, if I don’t want to be a runner today, fine. I’m still Meghan; nothing is broken or ruined. But you don’t always know that when you’re 12.”

Perhaps the best advice of all? 

“Chill,” says Duffy. “It’s supposed to be fun.” 

The Student-Athlete Playbook

A checklist to creating healthy habits — on and off the field

Brian Tuten, manager of sports medicine at St. Joseph’s/Candler and head athletic  trainer at Benedictine Military School:

  • “Offer choices so that they can choose what they love.”
  • “Understand that different kids develop at different rates.”
  • “Changing sports and using different muscles in different ways is exactly what you want to be doing.”
  • “Know your kids. There’s something to be said for a family meal at the table.”
  • “Shoot for consistent bedtimes.”

Meghan Duffy, a physical therapist at Coastal Pediatric Therapies, elite runner, run coach and yoga teacher:

  • “Kids are not tiny adults and shouldn’t train like they are.”
  • “Make movement regular. You don’t have to be interested in sports. Even singing requires cardiovascular endurance.”
  • “Put the tablet away.”
  • “Watch for consistent complaints of joint pain, or anything with a slow buildup over time. That’s a red flag.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

  • Taking one month off from a sport at least three times per year allows for physical and psychological recovery.
  • Take 1–2 days off per week for injury prevention.
  • Keep the primary focus on learning lifelong physical activity skills and having fun.
  • Play a variety of sports: multiple sports decrease the chance of injury, stress and burnout.
  • Delaying specialization of a single sport until late adolescence may lead to a higher chance of accomplishing athletic goals.
  • Early diversification and later specialization provide a greater chance of lifetime sports involvement, lifetime physical fitness, and possibly elite participation.

This story and much more in the January/February issue of Savannah magazine. Get your copy today!