My son has been wanting to play tackle football for several years now. Last year we balked because we would be missing a significant chunk of the season due to vacation. This year became the year he donned pads, helmet, cleats, and shiny tight pants for the first time.
The football season is a short one. The schedule consists of 6 games. That's right - 6 games. But the time requested of the players to prepare for those 6 games is significant. We were introduced to a typical training week when we returned from camping last week. It consisted of two conditioning practices that lasted an hour and a half, and three practices that were two hours long. That's 9 hours of practicing.
I knew going into the season that it would be a little intense - we knew when we registered that there would be three practices a week. I just wasn't expecting how intense the practices themselves would be. Lots of running, lots of agility, lots of drills to learn the skills of tackling safely, running routes, and how to catch a football. I don't object to teaching a child the skills needed to play, nor do I object to strength and conditioning training. I find myself, though, wondering about how much is too much - both physically and mentally - for a ten-year old child. With news of a fit teen collapsing and dying at the hockey rink this week, I wonder how my active but not-exactly-extremely-fit son knows when to say "no, I need a break." I wonder about the peer pressure to finish hard when it just doesn't feel good. And I wonder whether the coaches know what to look for when it comes to overtraining.
So I did some research of my own to help me understand the risks, including their likelihood, and what to look for. I discovered some guidelines here, here and here that I'll be using to determine when I should step in:
~ The majority of child sports injuries are related to overuse, which can occur when a child specializes in a sport almost exclusively from an early age. Think the child who plays hockey 8 months of the year or sports like soccer, tennis or gymnastics year round.
~ Injuries can occur near the ends of bones, where the growth plates are not fully mature. This can cause pain in the muscles and tendons near the affected bone, as well as in the bone itself.
~ Another common problem is burnout - where all the training is just too much and the child doesn't want to participate anymore. This can also be caused by too much focus on one sport, as well as pressure from others to excel at a high level - where the focus is on performance rather than for the simple joy and fun of the game. Burnout can present itself as a child who chronically complains of non-specific muscle or joint problems, fatigue, personality changes, or lack of desire to compete.
~ A rule of thumb to follow is that the number of hours training per week, including games, should not exceed the number of years the child is old. For Nicholas, who is 10, that would mean that the maximum amount of time spent playing football per week should not exceed 10 hours.
I find myself walking the fine line of staying neutral. If Nicholas is motivated and wants to play sports more competitively, I support that. I also hope that along the way, he is playing because he loves the sport, and I hope that the desire to play will still be strong when he is in his 30's. And I also feel it my duty as a parent to ensure he participates safely. Armed with the knowledge I now have about children in sport, I'll be working with Nicholas so he can tell the difference between discomfort that is safe to train through and pain that requires rest in order to heal. General stiffness and soreness in muscles is normal and not threatening to his health. Pain concentrated in a specific area, including around joints or pain in bones, needs to be addressed with time off of the sport. Pain in one's side (side stitch) can be addressed through various techniques, but chest pain requires backing off of the training. These are just a few examples, but I hope that by starting the discussion we can add more examples for Nicholas to use as a basis for understanding his body and the signals it's sending him.
I'll also be mindful of the verbal and non-verbal messages I'm sending Nicholas when I attend his practices and when I do my own training. I'll be an advocate for my son if he feels the pressure from teammates, coaches or other parents is pushing him to go on when rest is really what is needed. I'll remain diligent in watching for clues that indicate the pressure to perform and train is too much. I'll ask open-ended curious questions to find out how the world is looking through his eyes. And I'll be cheering for him from start to finish.