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Tips to keep youth sports fun, avoid burnout

Does your child dream of becoming the next Olympic star or pro athlete? While you might share those goals, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages all parents and families to take a common sense approach when it comes to sports training.

These days, it’s less common to see kids outside playing pickup games or racing each other to see who’s the fastest. Open, free play seems to be less popular as young kids choose a single sport or activity and play it year-round.

Organized sports can be great for kids. They can help them develop physical skills and get regular exercise that supports healthy growth and well-being. Participating in sports can also help them make friends, learn how to be part of a team and play fair, improve self-esteem and have fun. But studies show that nearly 70 percent of kids across the U.S. drop their favorite sport before age 13.

This is a warning sign that far too many young people are experiencing burnout, which can cause them to turn away from the activities they once loved. Burnout also interferes with a budding habit of physical activity and the lifelong physical and mental health benefits it provides.

Burnout happens when kids no longer feel a sense of fun and accomplishment when playing or practicing.

This can happen for many reasons, but single-minded, nonstop focus on just one activity when children are young — whether it’s baseball, swimming, football, dance, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse or any other choice — may cause kids to lose interest and enthusiasm. It can also happen when young athletes are externally motivated, working toward goals or dreams that others set for them, rather than their own goals that they develop themselves.

Overtraining and burnout can leave a young athlete feeling physically or mentally exhausted. They may believe that winning in the sport is the only thing that coaches, parents and families want and need them to do. In the worst situations, kids may assume this sport is their only chance for success in life.

Tips for youth participation

We encourage families to take a positive attitude toward sports that focuses on fun, teamwork and regular exercise. This way, sports can become part of a balanced lifestyle that keeps kids active and healthy into adulthood.

Here are some tips for healthy youth sports participation:

Wait to start organized sports until about age 6: Younger kids should enjoy free play every day to help bones, muscles and balance develop and give them a chance to exercise social skills, too — all without pressure to perform.

Encourage your child to play a variety of sports: Studies show that kids thrive when they try out many different activities before puberty. They also are less likely to lose interest or drop out when they engage in more than one sport.

Focus on fun: Did you know that kids say fun is the No. 1 reason they want to play sports? Give them the freedom to choose activities they truly enjoy. Avoid too much emphasis on outcomes or performance, especially in younger children.

Set training limits: AAP experts advise parents and families to plan for one to two days of rest every week with at least two to three months off during the year. The time off can be divided into one-month increments.

Consider what’s driving your child: Are they thinking about success in college? Or becoming wealthy, famous athletes later in life? These are exciting dreams, but parents and caregivers should present a balanced view. Remind your child that only 3 percent to 11 percent of high school athletes go on to compete in college, and only 1 percent receive athletic scholarships. The percentage of college athletes who go on to professional careers is even smaller. (Fewer than 2 percent of NCAA student athletes play professionally after they leave school.)

Keep an eye on your child’s health: Growing athletes need plenty of sleep and good nutrition to recover from the stress that training puts on their bodies. Be sure your child gets plenty of foods high in iron, calcium and vitamin D. Female athletes should watch for issues caused by overtraining, like missed periods. And because many sports stress the value of maintaining a certain weight or body type, always watch for signs of disordered eating in your child.

Watch for signs of abuse: If anything makes you uneasy about your child’s relationship with coaches and other adults in an athletic program, take action. If you see or hear something that suggests abuse, or your child complains of mistreatment, speak up immediately. Your child’s doctor can help you map out a plan to advocate for your child.

Set a positive example: If kids see you working out or playing sports seven days a week, even when you’re feeling tired or suffering from pain, they may try to do the same. After all, kids pick up cues about what parents expect. If you practice healthy self-care, they will too. Your attitude about your child’s athletic performance matters, too. Look for ways to appreciate everything they do, not just what they accomplish on the court, playing field or gym. Knowing you love them unconditionally fosters the confidence they need to enjoy sports to the fullest.

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Dr. Joel S. Brenner practices sports medicine at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters and Children’s Specialty Group, PLLC in Norfolk, Virginia. Dr. Drew Watson practices pediatric sports medicine within the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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