School is back in session and many kids are preparing to participate in a variety of fall sports activities. In this week’s On Call for All Kids, Patrick Mularoni, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric Sports Medicine Division at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, answers questions about preparing your kids to take part in sports.
When should kids start playing sports?
This is a decision that needs to be made by parents because every child is different. Some kids are ready to go and play soccer at age 4, and others are not ready whether physically or emotionally at that age. First we need to ask ourselves why we are thinking about organized sports for a child. The main reasons should be to have fun, to get the child out with other children their age to socialize and also to expose them to opportunities for the structure that the rules of sport creates.
Parents need to recognize cues from their child that they may be ready to play a sport. How well does your child do in group settings? Are they able to leave you and freely play with others? These are hard questions, but most parents are starting to expose their child to some sport activity by 6 years of age.
How about for older school-age kids? What things should parents do to help them be successful in sports?
The first thing is to be supportive and to help the child understand that, although sports are competitive and there is a winner and loser, there is a benefit to both winning and losing. You can help set children up for success by practicing the sport at home or in a non-competitive environment so they can get used to kicking, throwing or whatever is involved in the sport you choose.
Older children should be doing some more intense preseason training to get in shape before the season starts. This will also help children who spend a lot of time indoors to acclimate to the environment, getting used to playing a sport in the hot and often humid Florida environment.
There seem to be more and more kids specializing in one sport these days. Is that helping them get ahead of their peers?
Early sports specialization is a big problem in youth sports. In the short term, it might help kids become one of the best players on their team, but we need to examine at what cost. Overuse injuries are becoming more common in youth athletes, and in our sports medicine clinic, we see children coming in every day with injuries that could be prevented.
I am personally a fan of children playing multiple sports until at least middle school. This helps to avoid the overuse of doing the same workout and same motions year in and year out. A break is a good thing for children and so is variety. If we look to our children’s idols in the professional sports, all of those athletes take an offseason and many use that time to cross train or do a sport or activity that is different from their professional sport. We should follow the lead of pros and train like them.
How about injuries? You often hear, “No pain. No gain.”
When people say that mantra they are referring to the discomfort of pushing through a hard workout. It’s OK to feel discomfort from muscle fatigue during strenuous exercise, but parents should be concerned if children are leaving the field in pain. There is a difference between being sore and having joint pain. Joint pain is not something that children should experience. If you notice that your child is complaining of pain in a joint, changing the way they play because of pain, or if they are limping or not using an extremity because it hurts then it is definitely time to see a doctor who is comfortable treating youth athletes.
On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital medical experts. Visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Stories each Monday for the latest report.