David B. Soma, M.D., is a pediatrician and sports medicine physician at Mayo Clinic, and his research passion is pediatric sports medicine. Here, he talks about how parents can uplift and enhance their kids’ experience in athletics — and avoid being “that parent. “
Q: What are the emotional and physical risks to children from concentrating on one sport at too young an age?
A: Sport specialization generally means that a child or teen is focusing on one sport to the exclusion of others and that the young athlete is doing that one sport year-round — or almost that much.
From an emotional standpoint, the biggest risk from sports specialization is burnout — the child doesn’t feel rewarded with a sense of accomplishment or fun from playing the sport and loses interest and enthusiasm. Constant focus on one area without variety puts considerable pressure on the young athlete. There is just “one” arena for success and if they fail they lack a backup.
From a physical standpoint there is a high risk of overuse injuries. If you have the same movement patterns and use the same muscle groups, stress is placed repetitively over the same structures, and that creates a risk of sport-ending injuries. Rest is essential for recovery and often this isn’t possible in those who specialize in just one sport.
Q: If a child is genuinely struggling with a sport that he or she previously did well at, what should a parent do to figure out what‘s going on?
A: Every situation is different and this kind of problem varies at different ages and stages of development. However, there are a couple of questions a parent might ask the child — and then pay attention to the answers.
- What is your favorite part of your current sport?
- Do you want to take a break from X sport?
If the child wants to take a break or struggles to identify what they are enjoying, as a parent I would want to think about what might be causing the decline in performance.
- Is there an injury that needs attention?
- Is your child having a growth spurt or is your child around puberty and having physical challenges — joint or muscle pain, lack of coordination, balance issues?
- Are there conflicts with other team members? With the coach?
- Did your child specialize too early and now is bored?
There could be many reasons for a child to turn away from a sport, but it is important to look for signs of emotional or physical harm and to encourage your child to share his or her worries concerning sports participation with you.
Q: If a child declares they want to quit a sport that the parent has put a lot of time and money into supporting, what do you want the parent to say to himself or herself and to the child?
A: This is a tough question. It is not uncommon for a child who specializes in a sport to eventually quit that sport and it can be hard if a family has invested significant time and money. This is another reason why doing multiple sports is beneficial — if they quit one sport, they have other options. That said, if a child wants to quit I would inquire as to why.
- Is it because they are not having fun? If so then they may need a break and maybe they will come back to it. It may also be that they need to change teams or adopt a new training routine.
- Is it because they are no longer the best on the team? This is an opportunity for growth and teaching life lessons — after all, they are not always going to be the best.
- Is it because Mom or Dad is riding them too hard to be the best, get a scholarship, or think about going pro?
Whatever the reason, parents should know that forcing a child to continue playing a sport if they do not like it poses significant risk to the child’s physical and mental health.
Q; Sometimes there are genuinely bad coaches — they don‘t know how to coach, or they are too rough. How can a parent help a child cope with that?
A: In my opinion there are many more good coaches than bad. The majority of coaches are volunteers and are doing the best they can. I have coached around 20 teams and competed against hundreds and one thing I can say is that the biggest concerns are generally in regard to communication, intensity and positivity. Rarely do I hear a parent say I wish the coach would communicate less, be more intense or be more negative. Parents want coaches that hold their child accountable, but at same time create a positive learning environment and promote fun and success.
If your child has a challenging coach, I think this is an opportunity to get involved and ask to help out with the team.
Having a challenging coach can also be an opportunity to let kids learn that in life that they will encounter “bad” teachers, “bad” coaches, “bad” bosses or “bad” people. Learning to deal with that is important.
If your child is frustrated with how he or she is doing, I would encourage your child to approach the coach and share his or her feelings. For example: “Coach, I know I am struggling and want to get better. What can I do to get better? ” or “Coach, I really want to help the team, but I get so nervous out there when I am being yelled at by so many people. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do? ” From personal experience, a team player who is looking to get better can build a bond with a coach. That may not earn your child more playing time but will help create a more positive relationship and help your child improve over time.
Q: How do you handle these potential stumbling blocks with your kids, Dr. Soma?
A: In general, I feel that before every season starts it is important to have a discussion with the kids about whether they want to play a sport and what the expectations are — of themselves, from coaches and teammates, and from me.
At my house I tell my kids they can pick what sports/activities they want, but they must be involved with some activity most months of the year. This can be music, art, clubs or sports.
If they choose a sport, before the season starts it’s reasonable to talk to them about the fact that they are making a commitment and once made it requires follow-though. I want kids to understand what a team is and to have a sense of commitment. At the end of the season we can reassess.
David B. Soma, M.D.
In addition to being a pediatrician and sports medicine physician at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Soma is a former college athlete and is heavily involved in youth sports. He’s coached his three sons in youth football, basketball and baseball. He also serves as team doctor for area high school sports teams in the Rochester, Minnesota, area.