In youth sports, the right amount of practice will vary from child to child and sport to sport. However, studies of youth athletes who specialize in just one sport has given doctors some insight on what constitutes "too much sports." One good rule of thumb:
- Use your child's age as a guideline. She should spend fewer hours per week than her age in years playing or training for a single sport. So if she's 14 years old, anything over 13 hours a week devoted to one sport is too much.
"We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," said Neeru Jayanthi, MD, a sports medicine physician at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. He and colleagues at Loyola and Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago are completing a large clinical study of sports injuries in kids. They have enrolled over 1,200 young athletes, ages 8 to 18, who visited the hospitals for sports physicals or for treatment of sports injuries, and are tracking them for three years.
Dr. Jayanthi's research shows that kids and teens who specialize and train intensively have a much higher risk of sustaining serious overuse injuries, such as stress fractures. Athletes who didn't follow the age guideline above were 70 percent more likely to experience these serious overuse injuries (also known as repetitive stress injuries) versus other sports-related injuries. Stress fractures of the back and limbs, and other serious overuse injuries, can require one to six months of recovery time. And when the injuries occur in kids' spines, they may never fully heal—causing back problems and pain in adulthood.
More Play, Less Practice
Another finding from Dr. Jayanthi's research: Letting practice time crowd out time for free play can be risky too. Kids and teens in the study were more likely to suffer an injury if they spent more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they did in free play. So if your child plays pickup basketball and other playground games for 4 hours a week, she should spend no more than 8 hours a week devoted to organized play and/or practice of a single sport.
While more physical activity seems like it would be better for kids' health, the overall amount of time spent in physical activity was also higher in those athletes in the study who had serious injuries. Their total amount per week averaged 21 hours (including 13 hours of sports practices, plus gym class and free play). Kids who weren't injured had about 17.6 hours of activity (including 9.4 hours of sports).
Avoid the Too-Much-Sports TrapTo help reduce your athlete's risk of overuse injury due to specialization, follow the hours-per-week guidelines above. Also consider these strategies for keeping sports-loving kids safer:
- Play several sports throughout the year; don't specialize in just one until late adolescence.
- Don't compete year-round. Take breaks of one to three months (cumulative) every year.
- Plan a rest day, without training, at least once a week.
Jayanthi, N, MD; Dugas, L, PhD; et al. Risks of Specialized Training and Growth in Young Athletes: A Prospective Clinical Cohort Study. Presented 4/19/2013 at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine annual meeting in San Diego, California.