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Kids playing sport is great. But how much is too much?

New research shows there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of New Zealand children getting injured playing sport. It’s a timely reminder that kids don’t need competition to be active, writes ACC’s Isaac Carlson.

As a kid growing up in rural Wairarapa I got stuck in to just about every sport I could, as often as I could. It was a way for me to connect with my mates across the region, and it gave me a sense of fun and wellbeing that nothing else could match.

More was better in my playbook. More training and more competition equalled more gains, more wins, and more fun.

When I started getting knee pain at the age of 12, I didn’t recognise it as a sign of imbalance. I was blind to the fact that I had been building strength in some parts of my body, and not in others, which was causing the bones below my knees to calcify. The medical advice at the time was to simply stop playing sport. This wasn’t an option for a kid whose life centred around being active.

Instead I cracked on. Then in my early 20s I blew out my ACL twice playing rugby. I had pushed certain parts of my body too far, and my body broke. If I knew then what I know now, I’d be quick to adjust, get balance, and avoid the set back of a significant injury.

My story is not unique. ACC’s own injury data suggests that an increasing number of kids are breaking themselves on the sports field, with a staggering 60% surge in sports-related injuries for kids aged 10 to 14 over the past decade. This is double the increase of any other age group.

But at the same time, kids aren’t active enough. During the announcement of last week’s Wellbeing Budget it was revealed that only 7% of 5-18 year olds are meeting the recommended one hour a day of physical exercise.

These figures are concerning, and suggest there’s an imbalance that needs addressing.

So what’s causing injuries to spike? In recent years there’s been a trend in some young people specialising at an earlier age in a single sport. Combined with this, there are increasing opportunities for our rangatahi to engage in greater volumes of structured sports training and competition, exposing them to high-intensity training from an earlier age.

Kids are not ‘mini adults’. They have immature musculoskeletal systems, but are doing adult levels of sports activity and training.

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What worries me most is the fact that too much high-intensity training reduces the energy available for kids’ growth and development. This can affect peak bone mass and delay the onset of puberty, resulting in lifelong consequences for both physical and mental wellbeing.

And it’s not just here in New Zealand. There is evidence of a global trend toward early sports specialisation, which sees kids under the age of 12 concentrating on just one sport, playing and training all year round.

Coaches and parents believe they are doing the right thing, and that more – and earlier – training leads to higher chances of their little one making it big in the sporting world as an adult.

As it turns out, aside from in rhythmic gymnastics, there is no evidence to support this. In fact, scientific research says athletes who play a variety of sports before specialising are more likely to be successful in their chosen sport. They’re also more likely to build a lifelong love of sports.

Jeff Wilson, Sophie Devine, Kieran Read, and even tennis legend Roger Federer all played multiple sports growing up.

National sports body Sport NZ have been challenging the specialisation myth for several years, and also say choosing a sport young and giving it everything you’ve got works only for a few.

The Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians (ACSEP) backs this up, arguing that early specialisation contributes to burn-out, loss of motivation and potential mental health issues in later life. Dr Dan Exeter, the lead author for ACSEP’s position statement on early specialisation, says we need to find a sweet spot between kids not doing enough and kids doing too much.

The spike we’re seeing in youth sport injuries can’t be explained by early specialisation and over-training alone. There’s likely to be several factors. But the growing research and evidence supports the idea that too much sport can be just as harmful for kids as not getting enough exercise.

Just like taking risks, sport is a quintessential part of life for Kiwi kids. But filling our kids’ timetables with too much focused and intensive training can result, in the worst cases, in the loss of love for sport altogether.

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One way to check if your child might be doing too much is to follow the ‘one hour for every year’ guideline. The amount of organised sport per week – including PE, training and competition – shouldn’t exceed the child’s age.

We need to let kids be kids, and enjoy being active with their mates. At least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous activity is recommended. But the focus should be on participation and having fun, with parents supporting sporting diversity.

And then, when the time is right, they can shift their focus to a single sport. By that time, instead of breaking their bodies they’ll break through challenges and, along the way, have built a strong lifelong enthusiasm for sport.

Isaac Carlson is the head of injury prevention at ACC


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