schedules. Pressure to win and be the best. Painful injuries. Given all
these factors, it’s not surprising that some athletes simply burn out on
their sport. But what is shocking to many in the field are the young ages
at which this is increasingly happening -- sometimes as early as 9 or 10.
The scenario often goes
something like this: Eager to nurture the next A-Rod or Michelle Kwan,
parents enroll their 5- or 6-year-olds in a competitive sports league or
program. Over the next few years, training intensifies and expands to the
off-season, making practice essentially year-round. Youngsters may join
more than one league or a traveling team. They may have to sacrifice other
interests and give up most of the down time that allows them to just be
Soon the stakes get
higher because many parents and coaches play to win. Winning means
recognition and that could lead to lucrative opportunities -– high school
championships then college scholarships and perhaps a shot at the pros.
“Kids sports have become
much more competitive,” says Dr. Jordan Metzl, medical director of the
Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special
Surgery in New York City.
“And in general,
high-level competition for young kids is not a great thing,” says Metzl,
co-author of “The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide for
With more kids than ever
in organized sports, an estimated 30 million of them up through high
school, Metzl and other experts in sports medicine and youth athletics say
they are increasingly concerned about the pressures put on some children
to excel. Not only are these youngsters at risk for emotional burnout,
they may also develop injuries that plague them for a lifetime. Some will
turn to steroids or other performance-enhancing substances to try to gain
an edge. And some may give up on sports -– and exercise -- altogether.
'It's not fun anymore'
Kids with a strong internal drive may thrive on the competition. But the
pressure can be too much for others, particularly grade-schoolers who
aren't as equipped to deal with the stress as older athletes.
And the goals of sports
for young kids can differ dramatically from those of their parents and
coaches, says youth fitness researcher Avery Faigenbaum, an associate
professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts in
“Most children would
rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team,” he
When Faigenbaum asks kids
who've quit why they're no longer interested in sports, their typical
response: "It's not fun anymore." They wanted to have a good time, make
friends and learn something new, he says. But make the game all about
hard-core training and the final score, and many kids will sideline
“They’re getting turned
off of sports at a young age -– and that’s a sad tale,” says Faigenbaum.
There’s ample evidence
that sports participation can have important benefits for kids, including
improved physical health and emotional well-being. Hopefully, they’ll also
learn life lessons in teamwork, discipline, leadership and time
management. But kids can't profit from these benefits if they're quitting
sports early on.
new ball game
While parents may have
spent much of their early childhoods riding bikes around the neighborhood,
playing pick-up games of baseball or basketball with the local kids and
maybe joining Little League, today’s youngsters often fall into two
disparate groups: those who sit inside playing video games and those who
participate in organized competitive sports like soccer, ice hockey and
A big difference today is
that kids involved in sports play harder and younger than ever, says Steve
Marshall, an assistant professor of epidemiology and orthopedics at the
Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. And with dreams of college scholarships and multi-million
dollar professional contracts, the competition can get out of hand, he