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Sports for Kids: The Promise and the Problems

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Kenneth Jefferson Allen, MS, Meredith College Dietetic Intern

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on kids and sports. (Read Part 2 here.) This post is in honor of Youth Sports Safety Month.

Three-quarters of American families with school-aged children have at least one child playing organized sports. In many ways, this is great news.There’s no doubt that youth enjoy the fun and friendship of the game, and participating in sports certainly has many positive effects. For instance, youth who play sports are less likely to be involved in risky behaviors like smoking and drug use, and gain important mental and physical health benefits as well. Girls especially have been shown to benefit from sports participation when they enter the vulnerable teen years. And considering that we are in an era when childhood obesity has reached troubling new proportions, anything that gets kids up and moving is positive!

However, not everything about the way youth sports (both league- and school-based) are being played today is working well for kids and families.

Youth Sports Injuries on the Rise

For starters, increased participation in youth sports has led to an increase in sports injuries among children and teens. While to some extent, this is to be expected, many still have some concerns. First, there’s growing worry about the lasting impact of sports-related concussions, which can have long-term effects on children’s young brains. Although awareness campaigns are underway, it’s still very common for young athletes to be sent back on the field or go back to play or practice shortly after a concussion, when longer brain rest is what’s really needed.

Watch Out for Overuse

More attention also needs to be paid to overuse injuries, which make up least half of all injuries to young athletes. These injuries frequently come about as a result of the increasing tendency for young athletes to specialize in one sport, sometimes playing it virtually year-round. Today’s youth sports culture often strongly encourages this practice.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and most highly experienced athletes and coaches strongly recommend against youth sport specialization, at least until children reach middle school age. The AAP also recommends taking at least 1-2 days off a week and 2 months off a year, and participating in only one sport per season.

More Training and Higher Standards Needed

Another issue is that there are few, if any consistent standards or agreed-upon rules for helping reduce and prevent athlete injury. Experts recommend that youth receive a sports physical before playing, but this is often not done (though school sports generally require such physicals). Better coach knowledge on how to ensure safe training and play and on how to prevent and handle dehydration and heat-related illness, concussion, and overuse injuries would also be a huge help. Yet many coaches are volunteers, and receive little to no training before jumping in with both feet.

So to avoid the potential physical damage done to kids and youth in youth sports, experts advise looking for trained coaches, knowing the signs of concussion and overuse, making sure kids get enough rest time, and avoiding specialization. What about ensuring that youth enjoy sports and continue to want to play, and that the sports experience is positive for the whole family? Check out Part 2 of Sports for Kids: The Promise and The Problems.

Further Reading:

HEADS UP to Youth Sports –Information about concussions in youth sports from the CDC

Youth Sports Safety Resources–from the University of Michigan

Safe Kids Worldwide: Sports

Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes--from the AAP

Preventing Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes


Merkel, D. (2013). Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 4, 151-160. 

Brenner, J. S., & the Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness. (2007). Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-0887

Photo Credits: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Thinsktock