Now that the kids are back in school and fall sports like soccer, football, cheerleading and field hockey are well underway, we can look to the calendar and see that once November hits, the kids can hang up their gear until the end of next summer…or can they?

Year-round training of single sport children and adolescents is becoming much more common. For example, as the fall season of soccer ends, both parents and coaches are rushing to find late fall, winter and spring leagues and summer camps to promote perennial play for their young athletes.

This allows the kids to keep a competitive edge, sharpen their skills and keep parents checkbooks depleted. Not to mention the huge out of pocket costs for top of the line sports equipment, uniforms and camps. I have been totally guilted by my kids into buying brand new equipment, only to see it collect dust the following year.

Youth sport business is big and worthwhile for some, but the vast majority of kids who are elite athletes and are able to cash in on their perpetual practicing and turn it into a college scholarship or a professional career are limited. And the real question becomes, is it worth it? How much of this is coaches, parents and even kids themselves pushing the limits. And are kids who don’t want to play year-round single sports penalized and benched by coaches for not “being totally into the sport” like the others who do.

Dr. Joey Eisenman of Michigan State University, who has done research on Intensive Training in Young Athletes, tried to define the elite athlete.

“For some,” he said, “it depends who you ask. Is it defined by number of hours in the gym? On the practice field?”

Young Olympic hopefuls must commit major portions of their time developing the skills necessary for elite-level competition. Is it more hours that makes them better or more intensive training? In most cases it is both. The risk of interfering with normal social and psychological development — particularly in those youngsters who reach “stardom” status at an early age — provides additional argument for delaying intensive participation in a particular sport during childhood. (Thomas Rowland, Risks of Intensive Sports Training on Young Athletes, 1996)

Most experts recommend children participate in diverse sports activities prior to puberty, even if a “special talent” is discovered early. Too early specialization often results in “burn out” of the child before prime competitive age. Morgan et al (1988) reported approximately 80 percent of athletes with overtraining had a psychopathology similar to people with psychological depression. Moreover, overuse syndrome and musculoskeletal injuries incurred early on may prevent them from eventual participation at the elite level.

So should we not push our kids to play hard? Of course not! Competition is important in child development. However, Roland states, “The child himself or herself should have the desire to participate. Sports involvement for the young athlete should not serve solely as a vicarious pleasure for the parent or family.”

Each and every child and their parents must make that decision, and have the commitment (both financially and emotionally) to “go for gold” or keep the competition to a level that the child is comfortable. And if the answer is to “go for it,” Rowland believes the child should have regular visits to the physician to ensure optimal health as well as monitor injuries.

Contributor Annie Linton, M.Ed, is a Pediatric Clinical Exercise Physiologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, owner and program director for GrowingStronger, www.growingstronger.org. E-mail: growingstronger@comcast.net. She resides in Springfield.

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