High training volume and intensity, overscheduling, and early sports specialization are generally considered to be factors that increase the risk of overuse injuries.
That’s not an easy question to answer for youth athletes or their parents when gaging the amount of time spent in sports activity. The benefits of participation are clear and well-documented, from the development of teamwork to the formation of lifelong exercise habits.
But what about too much activity? Evidence indicates that overuse injuries and sports burnout could be among the undesired results, with up to 50 percent of all youth sports injuries related to overuse. The highest risk appears to be among boys’ and girls’ between the ages of 10 to 14.
High training volume and intensity, overscheduling, and early sports specialization are generally considered to be factors that increase the risk of overuse injuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) identifies an overuse injury as damage to a bone, muscle, ligament, or tendon caused by repetitive stress without allowing time for healing. Pain in the affected area, both during and after physical activity, is a primary symptom.
The symptoms for burnout include fatigue, lack of enthusiasm about the sport, chronic pain, difficulty completing usual routines, and poor academic performance.
So, what’s the right balance of time that will help our young athletes avoid the pitfalls of over participation?
The AAP recommends that youth athletes limit sports participation to a maximum of five days per week, and have at least one day off from organized physical activity each week. They also strongly encourage athletes to play on only one team per season.
In 2014, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) issued its own position statement, stating that “youth athlete training volume and intensity should be carefully monitored” and that burnout risk can be reduced by “keeping the emphasis on skill development over competition and winning.”
A 2016 US Lacrosse participation survey indicated that among youth athletes, ages 9-15, who reported that lacrosse is their most important sport, 72 percent of girls and 78 percent of boys indicated that they also play at least one other sport. In an age of increased early sports specialization, those are healthy numbers.
But the same survey also yielded some less encouraging data. Among boys’ lacrosse players, 35 percent report that they play on more than one team in a season by the time they are 15 years old, and among girls, 50 percent report playing on more than one team in a season by age 15.
“The results show that early specialization may not be a major issue among most youth lacrosse players since they are playing many sports,” said Dr. Bruce Griffin, director of the Center for Sport Science at US Lacrosse. “But the data also indicates that a large number of athletes aren’t taking enough time off from sports to reduce the risk of overuse injuries.”
In addition to playing on multiple teams during the same season, a larger percentage of young athletes are also playing across multiple seasons (i.e. – spring and summer, or spring and fall). Survey responses indicate that 50 percent of both boys and girls engage in lacrosse training and competition for nine months or more during the year.
Among high school athletes who participate in multiple lacrosse seasons, some athletes are playing up to 37 weeks per year. Middle school and youth players report playing up to 31 weeks per year.
“This statistic begs the question of when do aspiring lacrosse athletes have time for rest and recovery not only from the physical demands of the sport, but also from what many athletes refer to as ‘the grind’,” said TJ Buchanan, technical director for athlete development at US Lacrosse. “The grind is best explained as being the mental state of ‘having to go to lacrosse’ versus ‘wanting to go to lacrosse.’”
One of US Lacrosse’s recommendations to parents as part of its Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM) is that they encourage multi-sport activity and cross-training to help keep young athletes from burning out. Sport sampling, in which a child plays several different sports, is recommended at least until the age of 12 to enhance physical literary and to help kids find sports that they enjoy.
Specific LADM recommendations for youth activity levels can be accessed here.
“As with most areas of a child’s development, parents have an important role in guiding the sport experience of a young athlete,” Buchanan said. “Part of that responsibility is monitoring the dose and duration that a child is playing each week and to encourage taking the needed periods of rest and recovery.”