Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Once More with Feeling: Year-Round Sports Specialization Isn't Good for Kids

Opting not to allow the Picket Fence Post kids to specialize in one sport or play a single sport year-round hasn’t made me a lot of friends in youth sports.

Image credit: New York Times
Though we’ve been pressured from time to time to permit The Girl or The Eldest Boy to play indoor soccer in the winter – after having played soccer in the fall AND before playing soccer in the spring – I have politely declined, even when it’s been subtly suggested that by keeping them out of the indoor soccer racket (and by not additionally signing them up to also play on private club teams) might put them at a disadvantage when it comes time to place them on competitive teams. (Disclosure: The Eldest Boy did play indoor soccer one year but only because he wasn't playing spring soccer right afterward.)

The way I see it is this: I’m the one who's looking out for my children's health in the long-term, for their whole lives, not just for one season or one year. The youth sports organizations are not. (After The Girl’s lengthy bout with an ankle injury which required physical therapy and acupressure in order to overcome, I don’t want to risk her sustaining a repetitive injury on that ankle by playing one sport non-stop or consecutive seasons.)

I've been going by what I’ve read over the years from physicians who say that it’s not good for growing children to specialize in sports and play one sport without break, noting that even professional athletes get time off from their chosen sport. The recommendations have been for children to change it up and to play a variety of sports that use different muscles so that’s what we’ve tried to do with the Picket Fence Post kids, except when it comes to youth hockey because the season lasts for freakin’ ever, from August to April (which is one of my major problems with the league).

Then I read about a new study which found that children, who were thought to not be at risk for injury to their anterior cruciate ligament (the ACL, “the main ligament that stabilizes the knee joint” the New York Times helpfully explained), have been tearing their ACLs at alarmingly increasing rates. Why? Dr. J. Todd Lawrence, an orthopedic surgeon from Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital who studied ACL tears, offered this explanation to the Times:

“I think it’s primarily because kids are out there trying to emulate professional athletes. You see these very young athletes playing sports at an extremely intense, competitive level. Kids didn’t play at that level 20 years ago. They didn’t play one sport year-round.”

Studying pre-adolescents who were treated at his hospital’s emergency room for ACL and meniscus tears, Lawrence found that “most of the ACL tears that were treated at Children’s Hospital and picked up by this study . . . also involved a simultaneous meniscus tear, an indication of just how much wrenching and grinding the knee had undergone. Injury patterns have changed . . . because childhood sports have changed.”

Why does it matter if children tear their ACLs? Because previous studies of athletes who have sustained this type of injury found that within 12-14 years of the injury “51 percent of the female players and 41 percent of the men had developed severe arthritis in the injured knee,” the Times reported. If a kid is 10 when this happens, the Times said that means half of the girls could have an arthritic knee by age 25.

Here’s what Lawrence recommended:

“Encourage kids to play multiple sports and not to do any one sport year-round, and especially not when they’re 5 or 6, or even 9 or 10. They’re kids. Let them play and have fun, like kids.”

In my house, he's preaching to the choir.

Image credit: Richard Patterson/New York Times.

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