National sports leagues aren’t the only ones plunging into this new season with big aspirations and unmatched fervor. Even with the pandemic shifting the experience, sports and training are in full-swing—especially for our kids amid the fervor of new teams and organized elite clubs, and dreams of joining prestigious college teams in the not-so-distant future. 

However, Dr. Sean Haslam, an orthopedic surgeon and the chairman of the surgery department  at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Centennial, notes the needed health considerations of childhood sports. 

“Many parents attempt to treat their child athletes like miniature pros,” Dr. Haslam says. “They enroll them with the best coaches, the latest technology, and the most advanced training techniques to give their developing athletes an advantage. Yet, development plans can become derailed by injury, specifically overuse injuries. 

“These injuries tend to increase as the athletes advance into high school and college, even more so for girls. Additionally, injuries often lead to time loss from sport for 21 days or longer, which in the middle of a season can mean significant loss of playing time and development.”

So how can parents foster athleticism in their children while still caring for their long-term health?

Dr. Florian Dibra, an orthopedic surgeon at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Frisco, encourages families to remember the value and fun of childhood sports and not to let fear of injury impede just how rewarding the athletic experience can be.

Aside from the physical benefits (strengthening muscles and releasing pent-up energy), team sports can help develop the whole child: preparation, planning, physical strength, agility and mental growth.  It also promotes regular sleep patterns, teaches graciousness in the face of success or failure, and fosters a sense of accomplishment. 

“I believe good habits are formed early, and they serve you for the rest of your life,” Dr. Dibra points out. “Building a solid foundation based on good habits will allow an individual as they grow to stand tall and strong. The benefits associated with playing sports will prepare kids for a future which contains both success and failure, and learning how to handle them is important.”

Dr. Sheena Black, an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff of Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – McKinney, notes the shift from kids participating in unstructured free play and school activities, to now very structured athletic activity and involvement in club sports. Athletes are categorized as low, moderate, and highly specialized, with highly specialized athletes defined as those playing one sport exclusively for greater than eight months a year. The risk of this shift is the increase in overuse injuries often causing a leave from sports for recovery or burnout and drop out from sports.

“A good rule of thumb for parents is to limit specialized training hours so that it does not exceed the athletes age,” Dr. Black says. “For example, a 12-year-old child should not practice baseball more than 12 hours per week. In addition, parents should avoid specialization in one sport until puberty. Time for rest should be scheduled into the weekly routine to allow for rest and recovery.”

Dr. Richard Rhodes, an orthopedic surgeon at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano, cautions that even while a child is developing autonomously through sports, parental support and attentiveness to the child’s stamina and interests should be present nonetheless – especially where injury risk is concerned.

“How do you know when you should encourage your child to keep trying versus finding a different sport?” Dr. Rhodes asks. “From an orthopedic perspective, as young athletes age, injury risk increases… To continue a sport at peak level requires progressively more training and pre-sport warm-up activities. If a young athlete is getting burned out, they are less likely to put the time and effort into the injury prevention exercises. This causes injury risk to increase… changing the sport to something the athlete is more interested in can actually help lower injury risk and recharge their batteries.”

Dr. Haslam agrees with the concept of “recharging batteries” to not only reduce the risk of injury and reuse injury but also to treat young athletes with the physical care, attention, and protection that would be given to a professional athlete. 

“Why would we treat our young athletes any differently?” Dr. Haslam prods. “The thought of taking time off from the year-round training regimen is often received negatively because ‘What if my kid misses out on an opportunity, while some other kid develops and advances taking my kids spot?’ This is not the way professional teams act. Professional teams have a very deliberate off season. They encourage their athletes to stay active by participating in other safe recreational activities.

“So, treat your kid like a pro,” he adds. “Purposefully build an off-season into your kid’s elite training schedule. Encourage participation in other sports to help your athlete develop more fully. Do what you can to sidestep overuse injuries.  Treat your kid like a pro—they deserve it!”

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