Whether tots or tweens, they’re ready to play. Here’s how to make the most of team sports.
Back in our day, there were no soccer cleats for three year olds, no T-ball till at least second grade. Organized sports for youth have come a long way, and are reaching out to even the youngest “athletes.” That’s mostly a good thing.
For Pam Catalano of Harahan, sports are an integral part of her four children’s lives. Her youngest, four-year-old Gemi, became involved in T-ball at age three. While Pam recognizes the benefits of her pre-schooler being physically active, she does admit that their games can be rather comical. “There are just as many parent on the field as there are kids,” she says, laughing. Yet even if her three-year old doesn’t quite grasp the concept of T-ball, Pam says that at least she is outside and engaged.
The only drawback Pam has ever noted with her children’s involvement in sports was her nine year old’s experience with a baseball traveling team. She says it was a huge time commitment, and the coach’s focus shifted from having fun to winning.
In its policy statement on organized sports for children and adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that when the demands of a sport “exceed a child’s cognitiveand physical development, the child may develop feelings of failureand frustration.” The group explains that a child’s basic motor skills—throwing, catching, kicking or hitting a ball—will not develop more quickly just because he or she has been introduced to them at an earlier age.
Michelle O’Regan of Metairie is one parent not caught up in winning. She took her eight-year-old daughter, Molly, off of her travel soccer team when it became too intense and time-consuming. “They just took it too far for such an early age,” says Michelle. “She would be practicing three to four times a week, and then going to tournaments on the weekends.”
A generation ago, children only played a particular sport for one season a year. “Now there are all these different leagues for each sport, with no downtime,” says Greg Stewart, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon with the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine. “Whether they’re in high school, junior high, or even elementary school, they don’t get the downtime necessary to recuperate.”
Clayton Mazoue, M.D., a physician with East Jefferson Family Care, agrees that a child shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into one sport. “Play has to be well-rounded during these formative years when they are still growing and developing muscle memory,” he says. “You don’t only want to do soccer and nothing else. You need to have some variety.”
Constant playing of one sport can cause overuse injuries, including chronic muscle strains, tendinitis, and even stress fractures, although these are more common in adolescents and teens.
“Usually, you don’t see stress fractures till they’re old enough to play through the pain,” says Dr. Stewart. “Young kids stop when they start to hurt; they’re smarter than adults that way. The best thing parents can do is listen to their kids. Don’t push them if they’re complaining of pain.” Some youth sports enforce rules to help prevent overuse injuries—like little league limiting its players to 40 pitches per game.
With young athletes, Dr. Stewart says pain caused by growth spurts is much more common than the more serious injuries, like ACL tears, that he sees in older teens and adults. “If the bones suddenly get longer, they drag everything else with them, so everything is tight,” he says. Frequent areas of pain include the heel, which has a growth plate that pulls at the Achilles tendon, and the knee—“that bump just below the knee cap.” Treatment usually involves rest, ice, and elevation (RICE), and perhaps anti-inflammatories.
To help avoid injuries, Dr. Stewart advises parents to know what they’re getting their children into. “Understand the coaches. Make sure it’s a league that knows what it’s doing. That the coach knows what to do,” he says. “Watch some practices. Is the coach asking the kids to do more than they should? Make sure it all makes sense. And make sure the kids are having fun. That’s the most important thing.”
Since quitting her travel team, Molly O’Regan has played recreational soccer organized through Jefferson Parish. Her mom Michelle appreciates how the team sport has helped Molly learn about responsibility. “There are days when Molly will tell me that she doesn’t feel like playing soccer,” says Michelle, “but I will remind her that her team is counting on her.”
Signing a child up for sports can set a crazy schedule in place—even more so when you have more than one child involved. There’s a reason the term “Soccer Mom” has become so popular. But most agree that unless it becomes extreme, it’s time well spent.
“There are days when we don’t get home until 9 pm,” says Kristen Bairnsfather of Metairie, mom to a five and nine year old who play baseball, basketball and golf. “But it is all worth it because they enjoy it and get so much out of playing on a team.”
Sarah Herndon of Covington is a freelance writer and mom to Will, three-and-a-half, and Emma, two. This is her second article for nola baby & family.