Sport and exercise are great for children, but it’s important they don’t overdo it.
Our kids were born to move, and staying active is great for their growth and development – particularly in this time of screens, devices, and electronic connectivity. In fact, the Ministry of Health recommends that children and young people (5-17 years) get “an accumulation of at least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity” which includes activities that strengthen muscles and bones for at least three days a week. Children are also encouraged to do a variety of “light physical activities” for several hours a day. If you have a sporty kid, you might not have any issue getting them to do that one hour of vigorous physical activity each day. But kids are still kids, their bodies are still growing and developing, and there is such a thing as too much sport.
PUSHING TOO HARD
Often, children get into sport because of a parent’s interest in it – their dad played rugby at school, or their mum was a netball star. Sports clubs start young and encourage children to pick up skills early, and inherently there are a number of benefits of getting kids involved in sport from a young age – it makes physical activity a regular part of their life, teaches them teamwork, hones their motor skills, and promotes resilience and self-confidence. Parent support is an integral part of children’s early participation and success in sport, as having an involved parent means that children are more likely to show up for training, practise skills, and progress over time.
But when children are attempting to train at a semi-professional level, doing the physical exercise of an adult while they are still children – with bodies that are still skeletally immature, involved in growing and producing bone and muscle – we are setting them up for injury, muscle fatigue, and burnout. They’re also susceptible to depression, anxiety, and a reduction in the psychological benefits of sport. If it hurts when you play, or you’re constantly injured, or you don’t have time for friends or hobbies because you’re always training, you’re less likely to want to keep at it.
WHAT KIDS’ BODIES NEED
Parents and coaches need to recognise that children are children, and that their bodies need nurturing in a different way to adults. According to the Ministry of Health, children have higher sleep requirements:
• For five- to 13-year-olds, 9-11 hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep each night.
• For 14- to 17-year-olds, 8 to 10 hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep each night.
Also, children should spend no more than two hours a day on recreational screen time. For children who are extremely active, the way they get down time might be to come home, shower, and blob out staring at a screen because they’re too tired to do anything constructive.
But rest from sport doesn’t need to mean zoning out to video games. An easy bike ride, gentle walk, taking a swim, or throwing a stick to the dog are all good “recovery” activities from sport. It’s also important they build strength safely – hitting the weight room isn’t usually suitable for children until their bodies are fully developed (around age 18), and until then, supervised resistance training two or three times a week is usually more appropriate.
It’s important for parents to encourage children to participate in a range of sports
IS MY CHILD SPECIALISING TOO EARLY?
Is your child specialising in one sport, or playing a range of sports? “Specialising” means they are training for and playing one sport, year-round (at least eight months of the year), to the exclusion of other sports. “Early specialisation” means that your child is specialising in a sport before the age of 12.
According to Hamish Rogers for Balance is Better (balanceisbetter.org.nz), “It is important to understand, however, that just because a young person has reached age 12, does not necessarily mean it is now appropriate for them to specialise in a sport.” Rogers goes on to say that training in one sport at the exclusion of others should be delayed until middle to late adolescence (15+ years).
Furthermore, says Rogers, specialising early in a sport does not correlate with increased performance at an elite or senior level, and research shows that it increases the risk of injury and burnout (see above for more on this). Specialising also leads to overtraining and neglecting proper rest, and it’s counterproductive – continually over-exerting yourself has negative consequences on your mental health.
Participating in a variety of sports has a number of benefits, ranging from exposing your child to different coaching styles, body movements, tactics, and skills, to contributing to their becoming more resilient and better at problem-solving. According to Rogers, “A greater variety of experience promotes a wider range of benefits in terms of young people’s biological, psychological and social development. In turn, this supports both sport-specific development and youth development more broadly.”
SO HOW MUCH SPORT SHOULD MY CHILD BE DOING?
According to the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians (acsep.org.au), in general, young people should limit total sport participation – including training and competition – to no more than 16 hours per week total (no matter how many sports they play). Also, children should limit hours spend in organised sport and training to a number that doesn’t exceed their age – that is, a 10-year-old should not train/compete more than 10 hours per week total across all the sports they participate in.
For children under the age of 12, ACSEP says that “free play” or “informal physical activity” should be encouraged as a valid form of physical activity, and that the ratio of hours spent in organised sport to those spent in “free play” should not exceed 2:1.
KEEP A HEALTHY PERSPECTIVE
Sport is about developing the whole child, not just the player. It’s important for parents to encourage children to participate in a range of sports, and help them focus on what they are doing well and learning. Pay attention to your child’s emotional wellbeing as well as their physical wellbeing. If your child loves sport, that’s great – but they need to be involved in activities that contribute to their life holistically too. Surround them with supportive adults and coaches who see them as people and not just athletes.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is defined as “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment.” your child might be experiencing burnout if they:
- Have decreased confidence and feel their presence isn’t important to the team
- Feel overwhelmingly exhausted and fatigued, even after rest
- Don’t want to go to sport even if they used to love it
- Shoe a drop in achievement or inconsistent performance
- Have trouble sleeping or eating
- Lose interest and enthusiasm for the sport
- Feel upset, anxious, and emotional about the thought of going to training or competitions