How much sport is too much for our kids?

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A little girl dribbles the soccer ball around two boys on the grass field - the children are running in this action shot.

Experts and parents are increasingly questioning – are our kids doing too much? Our kids are overscheduled, our expectations are too high and our kids are missing out on the important work of childhood – play.

Sports, especially competitive sports, come with extra worries. Where there used to be a focus on fun, there is now an emphasis on competitive success. And with the drive for success comes the increase in training. It is not uncommon for six and seven-year-olds to be ‘training’ several times a week.

Participating in sport does provide a lot of benefits – development of self-esteem, socialisation, academic improvement and physical fitness. When done right, it enhances feelings of competence and promotes wellbeing. But the focus on competition means kids are starting to train harder from a younger age. This can cause problems for our kids.

Every year millions of children are injured playing sports – more than half from overuse of muscles that aren’t developed enough for the kinds of activities that they’re doing – again and again. Because our kids are still growing and developing they are more prone to stress fractures, tendinitis, degenerative conditions and damage to growth plates in their bones.

To avoid injury, the American Academy of Pediatrics believes kids shouldn’t specialise in a sport until they have reached adolescence. And young athletes should have at least one to two days off per week so they can recover.

Too much of one sport (or of any one thing!) can also lead to a decrease in a child’s wellbeing. We need to make sure we aren’t pushing our kids because we think it’s something they need, regardless of their feelings. Sport should be about having fun and learning, not about being the best (or even good!).

Unhealthy competition can negatively affect our kids as well. U.S. education expert Alfie Kohn says, ‘When we set children against one another in contests – from spelling bees to awards assemblies to science “fairs” (that are really contests) … we teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others.’

For me this is one of the critical considerations. Studies show that competitiveness can undermine resilience as kids judge themselves on their ability to be better than others. It seems that pressure to do well takes the focus away from plain and simple enjoyment of an activity for the activity’s sake. But isn’t that what our kids are supposed to experience?

There is also the risk of burnout. Approximately 70% of kids quit organised sports by the age of 13, mainly due to burnout. They’ve just had enough. They loved swimming because it “used to be fun”, but now it’s all about training, and times, and competition and winning.

And kids who specialise in a single sport before the age of 16 have a much higher risk of burnout. Watch for signs of burnout – inconsistent performance, lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment and being uncooperative with coaches and other players. Also more generalised signs like fatigue, depression, anger, irritability, lack of ability to concentrate, not wanting to engage with friends or family and difficulty sleeping or eating can indicate a child who is burning out.

So what can we do?

As a baseline rule, before the age of ten participation in sport should be limited and all about fun. Once the kids get to ten, let them choose what they’d like to participate in. This is when it becomes our job to help them balance the competing demands of sport and the joys of being a kid. Further, avoid specialisation. Encourage them to play a variety of things to see what they like most. Then if they want to get serious, they can do so from about Grade 8 or 9.

Find the balance

Make sure the sport is enhancing your child’s wellbeing and not just helping them to ‘get ahead.’ Ensure your child knows you care about them more than you care about whether they won their last race. And make sure your child is excited to participate. Everyone goes through periods where they lose motivation, when persistence is required, but they need to want to be there.

Keep perspective

As parents we are responsible for having (and teaching) perspective. Sport can be great, but make sure it’s not about competition, comparison or being enough, but about exploration, learning and creativity. Kids also need time for friendships, cultivating other interests or just hanging out.

Set limits

Finally, set limits. Follow the recommendations and limit training sessions to three times a week. Make sure your child has the summer holidays off from any sports at all. Remember, the entire focus should be on letting children be children.

You know your child best. If she loves to swim, encourage her in her pursuit of it. But ensure she also has time for friends, is getting enough sleep and has free time to explore other interests. Make sure she is not overdoing it, or putting herself at risk of an injury or burning out.

Her schedule may not be overwhelming yet, but with the push for year-round training, it may quickly become so. Remember you can say no (and sometimes should!) to the coaches and to your child. She’s a kid, and needs time for that as well

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