The National Post ran an article last week on kid's health, titled "Are year-round sports taking toll on kids?" Parents are enrolling their kids into sports earlier and earlier, and the pressure to do more of a good thing is almost overwhelming. In the article, Dr. Murnaghan, an orthopaedic surgeon at Sick Kids, spoke to an alarming increase in overuse injuries in children. Logically, we can all grasp this, after all children's bodies are still growing and can have big gaps in things like core strength, fine motor control and overall strength.
Kids are being asked to do too much, too early, with far too much specialization.
My experience as a parent is that kids are being asked to specialize in a sport far too early. In B.C., if your child plays soccer, by the time they are 11 they will be divided into gold, silver and bronze teams. Apparently, this is when the league believes they are ready to be divided by ability. I disagree. This early division of teams separate friends from one another, sends late-developers the message that they aren't good at the sport, and causes boys and girls to drop the sport they love. Kids who are good at eight are not necessarily going to be the best kid at 15, and even if they are, why do they need to be separated into a gold team?
Parents can be over enthusiastic. They see that their kids like diving and suddenly they are at the pool six days a week with their eight-year-old. They do this because they want to help their child reach their full potential, but they are not necessarily thinking about what their child will feel about the same sport after 10 years of living and breathing the sport. How is this fun for anyone? Early specialization puts stress on the family (driving, rushed meals, stretched parents) and it creates an army of 10-year-old mini-elite athletes who will more than likely drop the sport by 15. Some kids who start intense sports early, drop sports early. Now I will give you that there is a tiny, tiny percentage of kids who want to become, and may well become, Olympic athletes. These kids will drive their involvement and push for more practice time, for coaching and can never get enough of the sport. We want to support the dreams and ambitions of this tiny percentage of kids, but we don't want to build our sports system around them.
I don't want to see eight-year-olds with shin splints and 10-year-olds with rotator cuff injuries, which can result from intensive training, but most of all, I want kids to have childhoods filled with physical play of all kinds, play that builds and develops the body in multiple ways so that it stays strong and healthy. I want to see more kids still loving sports in their teen years, not so disillusioned or bored that they drop out in the crucial years for social connection.
I observe a real split happening in sport today. There are the kids that are good at sports and their parents can afford it; these kids are going around the clock and asking to specialize in a sport. These kids are being asked to choose between track and synchro, or running and basketball, or rowing and volleyball. They move from two practices a week to five, and by the time they turn 15 they are encouraged to spend most of their active time perfecting their sport. Then there are the rest of the kids, who may not be physically talented, or may not have families that can afford to drive their kids to diving five days a week, or swimming every morning or soccer games each weekend. These are the kids we need to create opportunities for; these are the kids we need to protect from inactivity and obesity, so they can enjoy healthy and active childhoods.
Check out my book Child's Play: Rediscovering the joy of play in our families and communities.