Paediatric Early Sports Specialisation

Paediatric Early Sports Specialisation

High-training volume and competitive workloads have been associated with an increased risk of overuse injury in children. Research suggests that young athletes, prior to maturation, and specialising in one sport has a 1.5 increased risk of developing knee pain (including Osgood-Schlatter and patella tendinopathy).

There is also an increased risk of injury where the ratio of organised Sport to Free-play is 2:1.

This increased risk of injury with early sport specialisation is mostly due to an increase in the exposure to a smaller range of specific movement patterns with insufficient rest and recovery. Therefore it is recommended that young children are encouraged to participate in un-structured, fun and varied sports and physical activities until they reach maturation.

If your child does participate in structured sports training and competition then here is some educational advice. If a child or young adolescent has intensive competition schedules more than or equal to 6 hours with insufficient rest and recovery (less than 48 hours) between competitions then this poses an injury risk. It is important to plan ahead of time and schedule in sufficient rest and recovery time to avoid a busy schedule.

It is recommended that children and young people participate in varied conditioning, strengthening, motor skills, balance, speed, agility and flexibility training programmes as injury risk can be reduced by 50%.

Strength and plyometric training has been shown to stimulate neural and structural adaptations and so should be considered as beneficial components of training for children. However, we advise that a child should only participate in a structured strength and plyometric training programme once they are mature enough to follow instructions. The child must also have competent levels of balance and postural control, which is usually found at around 7 years old. The level of training should be tailored appropriately for that child taking into consideration their stage of growth and development.

Recap and things to consider:

  • Support and education help to develop motivation, enjoyment and self-confidence for a lifetime of sport and physical activity.
  • It is important for children to be given the opportunity to develop fundamental motor control skills in early years for heightened neural plasticity (learning and development) during childhood.
  • The risk of injury peaks for those completing more than 16 hours of structured sports per week.
  • Even with the increased injury risk that has been associated with sport specialisation at a young age, under-use (not doing enough) is still the most significant risk factor for injury.

Long Term Athletic Development, Lloyd et al, 2016
Early Specialisation, Post et al, 2017

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