I love sports. I love to play. I love to spectate. I even love the ones I stink at, which is more than I can say for the instruments I’ve played. The same is true for my husband, so naturally, quality time with our children often involves sports. We recently registered our 3 year old and 5 year old in soccer and were quickly drawn in to practices and games, snack bringing, and volunteer coaching. It’s a thrill to see one of our sons score a goal or assist a teammate to do so; even better to see them feeling 10 feet tall or fist bumping a teammate. They’re learning all sorts of lessons beyond technique and coordination – they’re learning about sportsmanship, focus, and teamwork.
As a pediatrician, though, I do feel it’s becoming more common to see a darker side of competitive sports, including young athletes pushing themselves to the absolute limit physically and emotionally, or a well-intentioned parent upset with me because I won’t return an injured son or daughter to play soon enough. Did you know that of the 60 million children who participate in organized sports annually in the US, roughly 70% drop out by age 13? Children often cite the dynamic with adults (parents and coaches) among the leading reasons for quitting sports. Many children perceive their worth as somehow tied to their athletic performance. They say it’s not fun anymore. They are afraid to make mistakes. They feel disrespected. A must-read for turning this around is a book called “Changing the Game” by John O’Sullivan. In it, O’Sullivan discusses the common pitfalls of parenting an athlete, the ultimate goal of a lifetime love of sports, and most importantly, what to say to your child – the transformative words “I love watching you play.”
Here are some important recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Delay sports specialization until at least age 15-16 to minimize risks of overuse injury.
- Encourage participation in multiple sports.
- If a young athlete has decided to specialize in a single sport, a pediatrician should discuss the child’s goals to determine whether they are appropriate and realistic.
- Parents are encouraged to monitor the training and coaching environment of “elite” youth sports programs.
- Encourage a young athlete to take off at least three months during the year, in increments of one month, from their particular sport. They can still remain active in other activities during this time.
- Young athletes should take one to two days off per week to decrease chances of injury.
There are so many benefits of youth sports. Our collective goal as a community should be to work together to get children out and playing, doing it safely, and loving it well into adulthood.
Kristin Fernandez, MD, is a busy mother of two and a West O`ahu resident. She is the medical director of pediatrics at The Queen’s Medical Center-West O`ahu and lead pediatrician at the Pediatric After Hours Center located at Queen’s-West O`ahu. The Center is open 7 days a week and treats children’s minor illnesses and injuries after their doctors’ regular business hours. Visit www.queenswestoahu.org/pediatric-after-hours-center.