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Stay Active, Stay Safe

October 1, 2008

Millions watched in awe this summer as Michael Phelps swam into Olympic history, and eyes were glued to television sets around the world as gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson finished 1-2 in the All-Around competition.


But what price do these young athletes pay for their gold-medal performances?



As kids chase the glory of college scholarships, professional sports careers and even Olympic gold they are training like adults before their bodies are fully developed, leaving them at risk for injury.



Nowadays, it's common for children as young as 5-years-old to train intensively in one sport year-round, a phenomenon known as early specialization.



In order to be more competitive at a younger age kids are training harder, longer, and more often, but too much repetitive motion during the formative pre-teen and early teen years takes a toll on their developing bodies in the form of stress fractures, growth-plate trauma and other common overuse injuries. Incidences of these injuries have grown in the past decade as more young people participate, train and compete year-round on varsity, club and all-star teams - simultaneously.



And while Phelps' performance at the Olympics was remarkable, what no one saw were the 80,000 or more meters  (nearly 50 miles ) he swam each week in preparation for the games since he was 11-years-old. And of course, the world wasn't watching Liukin and Johnson train more than 5 hours a day, 6 days a week, through sickness and injury for over half of their lives (they are 18 and 16-years-old).



Choosing a specialization too soon can deprive young athletes from fully developing their fundamental motor skills and muscle groups that are not worked by their sport of choice. In extreme cases, early specialization leads to stunted growth, weakened bones and severe injuries - including some that may be irreversible.



Whether it is internal or external pressure, an attempt to meet expectations or be the best - competitive kids may hide their pain in order to keep playing or competing. The possibility of long-term affects should serve as a warning to parents of young athletes and their coaches to pay attention



The California Athletic Trainers Association offers the following tips to safeguard young athletes from overuse injuries:


  1. Play at the right age. Kids should be put into age-appropriate sports. The CATA recommends kids start playing organized sports no earlier than 6-years-old.

  2. Mix it up. The CATA suggests young athletes between the ages of five and 13 play multiple sports in a year to give their muscles and joints a break from playing the same sport repetitively. However, kids should not participate in more than one sport at one time. As they mature, if they want to specialize in a particular sport, they should progress safely into an intensive training regimen.

  3. Don't ignore pain. Encourage kids to listen to their bodies and speak up if they feel pain so that the problem can be addressed immediately before it worsens.

  4. Rest, rest, rest. It is important to take care of injuries as soon as they happen. Many overuse injuries, if caught early, can be healed with rest and time off from the sport.

  5. Get annual physicals. Young athletes should receive a pre-season physical every year to detect any potential or existing overuse injuries, along with any other health issues.

  6. Presence of on-site, qualified personnel. Kids should be coached by qualified personnel, and a certified athletic trainer should be on-site during school or other organized sports. As physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists, athletic trainers can offer a range of services, including injury prevention, immediate evaluation and treatment, and rehabilitation to reduce the risk of serious injuries, as well as re-injury.


Sports are still a great way for kids to stay fit and learn self-discipline, however, the key to keeping young athletes injury-free is moderation and diversity.






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