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Putting the Athlete First

Posted 10/19/2017 by UHBlog

Do you know why kids play sports? If you're a parent or a coach, talk to us about the misconceptions that can cause them to quit or lead to injuries.

Putting the Athlete First

Everyone knows that one of the best ways to stay in shape and handle stress is to exercise. It’s a lifelong lesson that many children learn at a young age through organized sports. But for many kids in the U.S., it's a lesson they’ll reject, primarily because of well-intentioned adults.

“One of the more common reasons cited by athletes for discontinuation of their sport is a negative interaction with expectations from parents or coaches,” says sports medicine specialist Michael Salata, MD. “These athletes become disenfranchised with the sport due to these expectations and interactions.”

One study estimates that 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by the age of 13. If a student-athlete continues into high school, other pressures come into play, such as specializing in a single sport, team dynamics and parents who think their child’s athleticism is scholarship-worthy.

“Most children get involved with sports to be around their friends and play for fun,” Dr. Salata says. “They want playing time and the chance to exercise and have fun. They're doing it because they enjoy it.”

But adult misconceptions can make it tough on kids by:

  • Pushing the child to specialize in one sport. Some children show an aptitude for one sport and are pushed to do that activity year around. Some tire of it, while others risk injury.
    “For kids who do a single sport, we see a higher rate of overuse injuries,” Dr. Salata says. “For example, with baseball, an overwhelming majority of athletes come in with shoulder and elbow problems due to overuse. If athletes diversify their sports, you get some inherent cross-training that allows them to rest their muscles and avoid burnout in one sport.”
  • Being overly focused on winning. If you’ve ever been in the stands at children’s recreational sporting events, there's likely to be one parent who takes the game too seriously. The parent yells at kids, coaches and referees while showing everyone what a bad sport really is. If you want your child to stick with sports, don’t be that parent. Instead, encourage your athlete without demeaning the experience for the child.
    Coaches of young children can also get caught up in winning, and don’t rotate in all the team members. This, too, can zap the fun for kids, especially those who may not be as physically developed as their teammates.
    “Playing a sport is one of the best ways for children to learn how to exercise,” says Dr. Salata. “Sports teach kids so many important lessons: camaraderie, time management and healthy habits that will benefit them down the road. Those are the messages kids should be learning in organized sports.”
  • Enrolling student-athletes in specialty training programs. While these programs can help the motivated athlete improve, make sure it's your child who wants this and not you. Many parents think fee-for-service programs will help their child become an elite athlete and more likely to earn a college scholarship.
    Besides leading to burnout for the athlete, the statistics don’t support this, Dr Salata says.
    “Most kids aren't going to play (sports) at the collegiate level,” he says. “Less than 10 percent of kids playing high school sports will get a scholarship. An even lower number – less than 3 percent – will get a scholarship to a Division I school.”
  • Living vicariously through your athlete. The further along into a sport your child progresses, the more conditioning and commitment the athlete needs. If your child isn’t as enthusiastic as before, ask why.
    “Even though it can be a challenge communicating with your preteen child or teen, you should probe the reasons why they aren’t as invested,” he says. “Is it your expectations of your child? Everybody has their own agenda, and you may need to change yours. Your child may have other interests. Is it the coach? Maybe you can show up at practice once in awhile to observe and get to know the coaches.”

The fact that so many young children are quitting sports is a trend that troubles Dr. Salata, especially since obesity now affects one out of six children and adolescents in the U.S.

“The love of the game is more important than anything,” he says. “When it's fun, kids will grow up and continue to have an active lifestyle. When they aren't staying active, it puts them at risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure later in life.”

Michael Salata, MD is an orthopaedic surgeon, director of the Joint Preservation and Cartilage Restoration Center at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and associate orthopedist team physician for the Cleveland Browns. You can request an appointment with Dr. Salata or any other doctor online.

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