Parents proudly watching their aspiring major leaguers hit a home run, serve an ace in tennis, or lunge to stop a goal might find it hard to imagine that their child's success in sports could harm his or her health. But today, games like sandlot baseball often are not kid stuff anymore.
Many youth leagues, particularly those for "elite," "travel," or "select" teams, have become hypercompetitive for many reasons, including organizations that make money from running tournaments, coaches who emphasize winning at all costs, and parents who hope that their children can earn scholarships by specializing in their chosen sport at an early age to advance their talent as rapidly as possible and gain an edge over their peers. Their intentions may be good, but the results are not.
I know because I see the injuries that result across a wide range of sports: Elementary-school-age baseball players with labral tears in the shoulder; young basketball players with tendonitis around the kneecap; junior tennis players with stress fractures in their shoulders; and soccer players who have had a sliver of cartilage and bone separate from the remainder of the joint, a condition called osteochondritis dissecans. These are serious injuries, not normal for any child. But when a developing body is subjected to the repetitive motions required by intensive training and athletic competition, bones, tendons and ligaments become susceptible to damage.
Physical activity is very important to children's health, but all children, no matter how athletic, have strength and endurance limitations which should be understood and respected. Many sports governing bodies respect these limitations and have different rules for youth games as well as child-sized equipment. As an example, Little League Baseball recommends baseball players ages 9-10 throw no more than 75 pitches per game and requires rest days depending on age and how many pitches are thrown. But playing on multiple teams -- town, school, travel -- can easily lead young pitchers to exceed such guidelines.
Repeated injuries not only sideline young athletes, they can also cause them to drop out of a sport. Another, less-discussed consequence of the extreme competitiveness of today's youth leagues is the impact on children who are not naturally athletic. The high premium placed on superior performance can turn off kids who face persistent indignity on the playing field.
In fact, participation in organized youth baseball, football, basketball and soccer is dropping. In 2008, nearly 45 percent of children played team sports, but by 2013, the participation rate had dropped to 40 percent, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Not only is organized participation less popular, but even casual play is down. As sports league participation sinks, inactivity levels are rising for both children and adolescents. The federal government's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 60 minutes of activity for children ages 6-17 each day. But one of every five children between the ages of six and seventeen is sedentary, according to the Physical Activity Council, a coalition of sports industry associations. Meanwhile, more and more children are spending their free time engrossed in social media, video games and television while consuming sugary drinks and junk food. This lapse into a sedentary lifestyle is contributing to another growing health problem: the rising incidence of overweight and obese children and teens.
Recent genomic research by my colleague Ruth Loos, PhD, Director of the Genetics of Obesity and Related Metabolic Traits Program in the Charles Bronfman Institute of Personalized Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and others indicates just how important physical activity is to retaining an appropriate body weight. One study uncovered 97 sites across the human genome that are associated with obesity, triple the number previously known. These genes are related not only to metabolic factors, but neurological ones as well. A second study found an additional 49 sites on the genome that influence body fat distribution. In Dr. Loos' earlier work she showed that the genetic susceptibility to gain weight was reduced by 30 to 40 percent in individuals who were physically active as compared to those who were inactive. Thus, even individuals who are prone to put on weight will benefit from being physically active. Millions of us have this genetic predisposition to gain weight, and so need an active lifestyle to keep it off.
Most parents will do best to encourage their young children to engage in a broad range of physical activity rather than pushing performance in a specific sport. This doesn't mean having your child play on several different teams, which can be time-consuming and financially impossible for many. Rather, choose a sport that your child doesn't participate in in an organized manner and just play. And your child still has plenty of time to achieve success later, because athletic capability in most sports does not peak until one is well into the 20s. The few exceptions are gymnastics, figure skating and diving, where top performance does come at a young age. Otherwise, early specialization is counterproductive to ultimate athletic achievement.
Besides, surveys of children show they don't care all that much about winning. Kids would rather participate and have fun.