My guest writer today is Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D, the Executive Director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute (NYSHSI). He gives a doctor’s perspective on how parents and athletes should view youth sports.
For young athletes, participating in sports can provide a myriad of health and fitness benefits, as well as important lessons in teamwork, commitment, discipline, goal-setting and fair competition.
Above all, sports should be fun for kids!
Too often, however, unsustainable demands, expectations and pressure from a variety of sources prompt many adolescents to consider alternative ways to overcome the burden of trying to do too much, gain a perceived edge and answer these competing forces and demands. These adolescents might consider cheating or experimenting with a variety of purported shortcuts to enhance performance, ranging from excessive caffeine intake to supplements specifically designed to increase body mass and strength.
Typically, young athletes do not fully appreciate the potential negative effects on their health and, ironically, on their athletic performance and injury risk. Two realities should be recognized both by youth in sports and the adult stakeholders.
Is “doing whatever it takes” healthy?
Nearly all adolescent athletes are not going to play their sport as a professional; and more than nine out of every ten high school seniors competing in sports will not play as a scholarship athlete in college. Therefore, the widespread professional development model in youth sports with an emphasis on specializing early and training year-round—and the associated (hopefully unintentional) pressure to “do whatever it takes” to improve, win and “make it”—is unhealthy, inappropriate and inconsistent to optimal athletic development and the realistic sports career opportunities and chances for these young athletes.
Not surprisingly, research shows that there is little relationship between early specialization and later achievement in that sport, and that it can actually lead to adverse psychosocial and emotional consequences.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has, in fact, warned that “allowing young people to specialize intensely and year-round in a single sport usually immerses their families in team cultures within which parental moral worth depends on investing so many family resources to the sport that the diversity of a young person’s physical activities, experiences and relationships is compromised.”
For better success, follow a more natural route
Secondly, a more natural course of training and development is going to serve a young athlete far better than any attempt to manipulate his or her body’s physiology in an unnatural and unhealthy way. This begins with a progressive, long-term, periodized training strategy to build a solid foundation of good technique, sound biomechanics and healthy, whole-body functional fitness.
Adding deliberate, regular days off for rest and recovery – coupled with sufficient sleep, balanced nutrition and good hydration on a daily basis – will go a long way toward optimizing performance and encouraging healthy, lasting sports participation and enjoyment. These are the contributing factors to athletic achievement that young athletes should focus on.
Parents, coaches and other responsible influential adults involved in youth sports must have a realistic perspective as well as honest discussions with their young athletes in order to demonstrate consistent support for staying healthy and enjoying playing their sport in an ethical way.
With sensible expectations and an emphasis on health and fun, our youth may not think they have to try to gain a theoretical edge with supplements and illicit substances to achieve, for most, what amounts to a misguided and unattainable goal.
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