Guest Author - Gwenn Schurgin O´Keeffe, M.D. , F.A.A.P.
In part I, I talked about why kids so badly need an off season. In part II of this youth sports series, I talk about why puberty is such a black box in youth sports development.
It may help you to conceptualize a child’s developing body like baking a chocolate chip cookie. For the perfect cookie, you need specific ingredients in the right proportion for the cookie to bake correctly. A child’s growing and developing body is similar and needs a variety of ingredients to grow correctly – a balance of foods, physical activity, education, rest time, enrichment, and fun. Miss an ingredient, add too much of an ingredient, and the child won’t “bake” right.
For our kids, today’s level of youth sports participation is like having too many chocolate chips in a cookie – too much of a good thing, particularly in prepubertal kids. Labeling a child as a star athlete before puberty is complete is like awarding a baker the best recipe for a cookie before the taste tests are complete.
Under or over baking our cookie ruins its quality. Similarly, kids need certain level of activity in a kid-friendly way for their bodies to develop appropriately as athletes. Otherwise they will end up either under developed, and overweight, or over pushed, with physical and emotional burnout and injury.
During puberty, growth rates accelerate, hormones change strength and physical changes occur and as a result a child’s coordination becomes temporarily awkward. Many kids, in fact, become worse at sports during puberty before settling into their new bodies. All kids have to get used to new height and strength and girls have to get used to a completely new body shape all together.
Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and youth sports activist, is very concerned that too many kids are marginalized as being poor athletes before they’ve been given an opportunity to finish growing and develop. Many of our best known sports stars had their own sports struggles. Did you know that Michael Jordan was cut from his sophomore varsity basketball team? He was only 5’9” at that time. But, over the next two years he grew 8 inches and developed enough coordination while on JV to be on the varsity team as a senior in high school. And, that’s when his true skill started to shine.
Equally important to the need for physical activity in childhood is the right amount of activity. In fact, appropriate levels of sports participation are actually much less than what kids are currently doing. Youth sports experts like Bigelow and Grasso feel kids in 3rd to 5th grade should be doing 1 organized sport per season for no more than 3 times a week at 90 minute durations. And, all kids should do something active every day informally with friends and family.
All this information is consistent with the new American Academy of Pediatrics Youth Sports participation statements that are hot off the presses and should cause all of us to pause and really evaluate the type and amount of activity our kids are participating in.