Healthy child


Organized sports shouldn't happen too early :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Susan Dodge

Remember when spring meant riding bikes all over town with your friends, jumping rope with a friend and just playing catch in your neighborhood?

The spontaneous play of our childhood has gradually been replaced with scheduled play dates and organized sports.

These days, with so many parents working outside the home, children might find it nearly impossible to find someone to play with them if parents didn't schedule play dates and seek out organized sports.

With gymnastics classes starting at age 2 and soccer at 3, kids who aren't potty trained yet can already belong to a "team" and learn a sport.

Parents dreaming of the next Tiger Woods, who began golfing before he was 2, may believe that starting kids in organized sports early is their key to excelling athletically as adults.

I am just as guilty of this as any other parent. I couldn't help but dream of a professional baseball career when I watched my son Ben, 2, hit his Fisher-Price T-ball with a plastic bat for the first time. And the phrase "future soccer player" popped into my mind recently when Ben kicked a ball in our backyard.

But pushing a child to play organized sports too young can lead to both overtraining injuries and burnout, according to sports-medicine experts.

A rise in cartilage injuries such as "Little Leaguer's elbow" and "runner's knee" has led some pediatricians to call for restraint when parents enroll their kids in organized sports.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that organized sports for kids compliment, not replace, regular physical activity that comes with play. Preschool children should participate in short, playful exercise sessions limited to 15 or 20 minutes of structured activity, with 30 minutes of free play, according to the academy.

It's hard to argue against kids getting exercise at a time when about 15 percent of kids 6 to 19 are overweight, a number that has nearly tripled since the early 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 10 percent of preschool children between 2 and 5 are overweight.

Indeed the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recently increased its recommendations for physical activity for kids to at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

The guidelines also say children should participate in several bouts of physical activity lasting 15 minutes or more each day. Although it's reasonable to want children to wind down at the end of the day, it's important to keep them moving during the daytime hours.

"Perhaps the single most important time to increase physical activity and decrease sedentary activities such as television watching and computer time is after school between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.," says George Graham, the association's president.

Parents should expose youngsters to a wide variety of physical activities to prevent overtraining injuries, says Marla Richmond, an exercise physiologist based in Northbrook and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and Fitness.

"Kids younger than 5 will find it difficult to follow a coach's directions and hard to understand the rules of sports," says Richmond, author of Buff and Stuff: The Art and Science of Getting Strong and Eating Right. "Really little ones should be out running around catching bubbles and throwing balloons in the air, just playing."

Parents need to model good sportsmanship and act as role models for an active, balanced life, says Richmond, who answered my questions while walking on her treadmill.

Richmond works with many suburban school districts to teach coaches how to create fitness training programs for sports teams.

A coach who isn't properly trained may start practices with sprints or hold practices daily. Both can lead to injuries such as runner's knee and shin splints.

Little League pitchers who pitch too many innings in a row can damage cartilage inside the elbow. Young gymnasts can get stress fractures of the vertebra from the repeated bending of the back. And kids who swim frequently can get swimmer's shoulder-muscle and tendon damage caused from repeated overarm shoulder motions.

Many coaches of young kids' sports are volunteers who have not been trained to coach and may not be familiar with how to properly "warm up" and "cool down" kids before and after practices and games, Richmond says.

Parents can help by making sure their kids are physically fit before beginning an organized sport. A month before starting a sport, kids should get regular physical activity to prevent injuries at the beginning of the season. Kids as young as 7 can do regular strength training with 1 or 2 pound weights to prevent injuries, Richmond says.

Parents should watch for persistent soreness in kids for days after participating in a sport, fatigue, moodiness, loss or change in appetite and sleep disturbances, too. All can be signs that a child is simply overtraining and needs a break.



Susan Dodge is Ben's mother and a writer living in northwest Indiana


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