Participating in youth sports can provide myriad health and fitness benefits as well as important lessons in teamwork, commitment, discipline, goal setting, and fair competition. Above all, sports should be fun for kids! Too often, however, unsustainable demands, expectations, and pressures from a variety of sources (including parents, coaches, school, and the community) prompt resentment, injury, and ultimately quitting sports. Young athletes also might be tempted by seemingly attractive yet unsuitable tactics to gain a perceived athletic edge or to overcome the collective burden of social, family, and school commitments that are coupled with unreasonable athletic demands and expectations in response to these often competing forces. Some adolescents might consider cheating or experimenting with a variety of purported shortcuts to enhance performance, ranging from excessive caffeine intake to supplements specifically designed to increase body mass and strength. Typically, these misguided youths do not fully appreciate the consequent potential negative effects on their health, injury risk, character, and, ironically, their athletic performance and achievement.
Two realities should be recognized by the adult stakeholders involved in youth sports (especially the parents!). Nearly all adolescent athletes are not going to play their sports as a professional, and more than nine out of every ten high school seniors competing in sports will not play as a scholarship athlete in college. Therefore, the widespread professional development model in youth sports with an emphasis on inappropriate early specialization and training year-round — and the associated (hopefully unintentional) pressure at an early age to “do whatever it takes” to improve, win, and “make it” — is unhealthy, unacceptable, and inconsistent to optimal athletic development and the realistic sports career opportunities and chances for these young athletes. Not surprisingly, research shows that there is little relationship between early specialization and later achievement in that sport. In fact, premature, highly focused, single-sport emphasis can actually increase athletic injury risk and encourage adverse psychosocial and emotional consequences. Secondly, a more diverse and individual-based natural course of training and development is going to serve a young athlete far better than any attempt to unduly accelerate athletic achievement or manipulate his or her body’s physiology in an unnatural and unhealthy way. This begins with a progressive, long-term, diverse, and periodized training strategy designed to build a foundation of sound biomechanics and movement complemented by whole-body functional fitness. Adding deliberate, regular days off for rest and recovery — coupled with sufficient sleep, balanced nutrition, and good hydration on a daily basis — will go a long way toward optimizing performance and encouraging healthy, lasting sports participation and enjoyment. These are the contributing factors to athletic achievement that young athletes should focus on. The long-term payoff is greater athletic capacity and resilience — that is, sustainable sport performance and lower musculoskeletal injury risk. Parents, coaches, and other responsible influential adults involved in youth sports must have realistic perspectives and demonstrate to the kids consistent emphasis and support for staying healthy and enjoying playing their sport in an ethical way. It is also essential to have honest discussions with their young athletes and mutually develop sensible expectations with an emphasis on health and fun.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) must meet diverse and evolving needs and challenges in addressing and tackling multiple issues across the breadth of sports medicine. Reinforced by the urgent and widespread international attention on youth and physical activity and health, it was evident that ACSM would benefit its members and the community with a more focused, deliberate, and recognized effort to aptly address critical issues facing today’s youth sports culture. Through a partnership shaped out of mutual interest in the health and safety of kids and youth sports, ACSM and Sanford Health (an integrated health care system based in Fargo, ND, and Sioux Falls, SD) launched the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute (NYSHSI) in the fall of 2011. Representatives from both Sanford Health and ACSM were joined for the public announcement on Capitol Hill by South Dakota Senator John Thune and now former North Carolina Representative Mike McIntyre — both recognized champions of youth sports and safety. With the assistance of ACSM’s government relations staff, NYSHSI has since played a key contributing role in other notable occasions in Washington, DC, such as our most recent teaming up with the Congressional Fitness Caucus to sponsor a briefing on Capitol Hill. Together, we shared our mutual commitment to supporting and encouraging physical activity in youths and healthy youth sports — for individual health and wellness and as a public health priority!
Being a supporter and voice for our youth is what fuels us at NYSHSI; however, talk alone is not enough. NYSHSI is dedicated to being the recognized leader and advocate for advancing and disseminating the latest research and evidence-based education, recommendations, and policy to enhance the experience, development, health, and safety of our youth in sports. But making a measurable difference in the youth sports culture and community requires the voices of and partnership with many — parents, coaches, schools, sports governing bodies, the media, and the community. It is of great importance that each of these stakeholders be strong advocates for our young athletes. Kids are getting injured at an alarming rate, and we must do something about it! The need for NYSHSI is underscored by a poll that showed that 91% of Americans feel sports participation is important for children and adolescents and 94% feel that more needs to be done to ensure the health and safety of youth athletes. These concerns have been galvanized by repeated reports of exertional heat illness, concussion, undiagnosed heart conditions, and other issues affecting athletes of all ages.
Changing the culture of youth sports is a formidable task, but one that should be approached like any athlete would approach his or her goal — with a plan and a lot of hard work and determination to succeed. Change and victory typically do not happen overnight, but with persistence, positive results typically follow. Leading up to being executive director of NYSHSI, my more than 25 years in sports medicine clinical science and research, including multiple organizational leadership roles with ACSM, working closely with numerous athletes across many sports and being a youth sports coach and parent, like others, I readily recognized the need for change. NYSHSI, with the support and guidance of a seasoned program officer and an 11-member leadership board anchored by three ACSM past presidents, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist, and a former nine-term U.S. congressman, is positioned to lead the way. To date, there has been prominent brand awareness through timely and responsive local, regional, and national media engagement, and social media as well as significant resource and program development. For those who work with and/or oversee youths in sports and are interested in making a difference, the following resources (and others found on our Web site) can be instrumental in helping communities and families make youth sports participation a more sustainable and enjoyable process and one that will teach kids to be healthy and good citizens of the game and community while setting the stage for lifelong physical activity, fitness, and health (available at http://www.nyshsi.org):
- NYSHSI Youth Sports Parent Pledge — School and community youth sports programs can encourage supportive parent behavior and child interaction by urging each parent to review and sign the parent pledge with their child.
- NYSHSI Seal of Best Practices — Community youth sports programs can show their commitment to safe and healthy youth athlete participation and development and receive a Best Practices Partner certificate by agreeing to fulfilling three essential elements.
- NYSHSI Educational Handouts — such as Managing Sport Concussion in Youth: An Integrated Team Effort and Youth Sports Safety: The Rules of Play, Injury Risk and Respect — are available from our Web site’s resources section.
- NYSHSI Healthy Youth Sports app — Our interactive mobile app available on iTunes/App Store and Google Play.
It is exciting and rewarding for NYSHSI to be a part of ACSM’s commitment to physical activity through healthy youth sports. Enthusiastic and complementary support from ACSM President Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, FACSM, reinforces ongoing and new advocacy efforts to ensure that every child has access to quality physical education and enjoyable, viable opportunities for daily physical activity. Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Well, we have come together, we are making progress, and we look forward to working successfully together with our growing team. Our young athletes are counting on us!