If your child demonstrates a particular talent for a sport or just loves it passionately, you need to be aware of the guidelines for safer sports practice. Otherwise, your child is at risk of overdoing it. Too much practice time, and/or overspecialization in a single sport, can lead to a higher risk of injuries. And some of those injuries may never completely heal without surgery.
So how do you know if your kid is devoting too much time to his sport? 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 have given doctors some insight into what constitutes an unsafe amount of sports practice.
Use your child's age as a guideline. They should spend fewer hours per week than their age in years playing or training for a single sport.
For example, if your child is 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," says Neeru Jayanthi, MD, a sports medicine physician who was previously the director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola University in Chicago. He and colleagues at Loyola and Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago conducted a large clinical study of sports injuries in kids. They analyzed data from 1,190 young athletes, ages 7 to 18, who visited the hospitals for sports physicals or for treatment of sports injuries within a three-year period.3
Dr. Jayanthi's research shows that kids and teens who specialize in a single sport 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 twice as 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 Time, Less Practice Time
Another finding from Dr. Jayanthi's research: Letting practice time crowd out 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, they 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 injuries. Their total amount per week averaged 19.6 hours (including 11.2 hours of sports practices, plus gym class and free play). Kids who weren't injured had about 17.6 hours of activity (including 9.1 hours of sports).
Avoid the Unsafe-Sports-Practice Trap
To 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.