Competitive spirits in youth sport…is there a limit?

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Can a sport be too competitive for my kid?

Overuse in pediatric sports medicine is a very valid concern both from the perspective of injury and psychological burnout. We have seen a rise in overuse injuries and burnout due to increased organized sports at younger ages and the pressures that go with it to play, train, perform, win, get that scholarship, and play some more. We have learned a number of lessons the hard way with our children suffering from burnout, isolation, stress fractures, growth plate injuries, and Tommy John’s surgery due to overuse before they ever reached high school.  Doctors, coaches, and parents all need to work together to understand their roles in preventing such horrible outcomes and keeping sport what it should be for our developing youth…Natural, healthy, and fun.

Is it ok for younger kids to be competitive?

Yes, if the competitive drive is natural and derived intrinsically from them.  Being competitive and playing hard is a natural drive in many kids at a young age and this can be normal.  However, many do not have the same competitive drive and play sport for fun and companionship.  Competitiveness in youth sport becomes a problem when it is a reflection of the adults involved, such as coaches, parents, and spectators. Those who are not naturally as competitive should not be pushed to play harder or play more, but rather ascertaining that they are enjoying themselves and having fun.  The greatest benefits kids gain from sport is the promotion of an active, healthy lifestyle that they enjoy.  It is important we all remember that at all times.

Is it ok for my kid to have a favorite sport?

Of course, many of us do.  Having a favorite sport that predominates your child’s regular activity is fine and often healthy.  There just needs to be a clear understanding of what the limits are daily, weekly, and yearly.  Proper training and rest times also need to be well understood in prepping for prevention of injuries in a sport that predominates a kids schedule.  In general, diversification in sport is better for pre-teen kids than specialization, however those who are diversified can certainly have a main or favorite sport.  The Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and STOP Injuries Program have great sport specific recommendations that should be followed to avoid pushing the participation limits and introducing real injury risk.

Is it possible to play too much of one sport?

Yes.  Studies have shown that early specialization prior to teenage years can pose an increase risk to overuse injuries and even limit the benefits of sport diversification.  In contrast, early diversification in sport been shown to improve overall gross motor scores such as running, jumping, strength, and flexibility.  Furthermore, the rates of psychological burnout are much higher in athletes of all ages when they are exclusively specialized in one sport.  Even in high-level college and professional athletes “Over Training Syndrome” or OTS has been shown to induce physiologic changes (such elevated resting heart rate and changes in heart rate variability), which follow psychological burnout.  This is a powerful phenomenon illustrating the relationship of the mind and the body during sport as a deeply integrated one.  So in general we would advise keeping activity diversified in the pre-teen population, and for those who are older making sure proper guidelines are followed not to specialize too much in one’s primary sport risking injury and burnout

So should I push my kid to sign up for different sports throughout the year?

We should never push kids to participate in any sports they do not like or have limited interest in.  However, by encouraging different activities such as play, recreation, different types of training (aerobic and resistance), yoga, and martial arts kids will naturally diversify their activities and movements.  This will also expose them to different kids of sports and they can willfully choose to participate in other organized sports if they have a real interest in them.  Thus, I would say it is our job to encourage and enable our kids to try different activities and let them lead the way with regards to the types of organized sports they want to play.

How much exactly is too much for a particular sport?

The general recommendations for prevention of overuse injury are:

  • Limit practices to 5 days a week
  • Minimum of 1 rest day a week
  • Participate in only one team per season (per sport)
  • Take a minimum of 2-3 months (one season) off from that particular sport annually

There are also very sport specific recommendations, such as pitch count limits and rest day requirement in the throwing athlete. These recommendations are critical to know and follow for prevention of serious overuse injury and can be found on the resources such as the STOP Injuries website.

What are other ways to help prevent overuse injuries and prepare for a season?

Other recommendations for injury prevention include a properly graded preseason conditioning 6-8 weeks prior to any season, which should include both an aerobic (running, biking, swimming) component and an anaerobic resistance-training component.  All resistance training in kids should be properly supervised with a maximum of 3 days a week on alternate days.  Technique should be emphasized with high repetition and low load.  Training increases should be very gradual, with 10-20% per week a good general rule of thumb.  The AAP recommends focus on flexibility, core strength and stability as key injury prevention measure throughout ones athletic career.

Research Study: Pediatric Overuse Injury


By Mo Mortazavi MD