Helping Kids Have a Ball

Don Morris

Neeru Jayanthi and Spero Karas are sports medicine physicians at Emory and national experts on youth sports, injuries, and training patterns. They recently discussed some of the challenges that serious young athletes can face—and offered advice on how to prevent unnecessary injury, stress, and burnout.

Five Tips for Parents of Young Athletes

Lose Focus.

Jayanthi encourages parents to not push their children toward one sport too soon. “I’ve noticed a paradigm shift in youth sports—early specialization in younger and younger children,” says Jayanthi. “This poses a risk for kids not seen in previous genera-tions—young, developing bodies are put under the stress of executing maneuvers and skills designed for adult bodies.”

All Work, No Play?

Even for young athletes in low-impact sports, the grueling practice schedule can wear them down, cutting into their sleep and self-care time. In the long run, that can be counterproductive and even harmful for talented, ambitious kids. Figure skater Aspen Ono 18C began training at the age of four and worked tirelessly at her sport until eighteen, when she stopped competitive training to concentrate on her college studies. Most mornings, Ono was at the rink by 5:00 a.m., warming up for a two-hour practice; she completed a full day of school and was back at the rinkagain for two more hours of training. “I was diagnosed with arthritis in my back by the time I was fifteen,” she says. “Years of jumping and smashing my spinal vertebrae together has left me with minimal padding between them. I now see physical therapists, massage therapists, physicians, and chiropractors routinely.”

Know Their Limits.

Emory sports medicine physician Spero Karas sees young athletes pushing themselves beyond their limits every year—especially as students get ready to impress college and pro scouts in the “Combine,” a showcase of the area’s best young hopefuls. “Athletes who prepare for the Combine are really pushing themselves,” Karas says. “I see a lot of overuse, over-exertion type injuries—strained pecs, hamstrings, quads.” Injuries that affect the joints, like tearing the ACL or shoulder dislocation, are the most critical because they render the area highly unstable. “They require surgery, putting the athlete out of training for weeks at a time, as well as leaving the affected region nonfunctioning for the time it takes to heal,” he says. “Arthritis is yet another possible effect of long-term joint trauma.”

Get Some Coaching.

Sports medicine physicians can address the range of challenges that young athletes face and help stave off injuries and stress before they become serious problems. For instance, Jayanthi works with tennis players, sometimes conducting on-court evaluations with video analysis to help identify stroke mechanics that may need to change for players to return safely to play. “Taking care of young players includes injury prevention, performance training, nutrition, even mental health counseling,” he says.

Eye on the Ball.

In general, Jayanthi says, young people should not be training more hours a week than their age, and shouldn’t specialize in a single sport before age twelve. “Young athletes who are already dedicated to one sport should be spending at least a month after the season to rest and recover, and at least three months off per year, total,” he says. “Sports are a great way to exercise, but not respecting the body and its limitations can lead to burnout and injury.”—Melissa Mickiewicz

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