Why should you worry about your high school athlete?
American Academy of Pediatrics releases report on concern for today's student athlete
Long hours. Not having a chance to eat with the family. Pressure to excel. It’s a familiar pattern with many adults.
Unfortunately, it’s also a troubling trend among today’s high school athletes.
Cook Children’s pediatrician David H. Goff, M.D., FAAP, calls overstressed, busy children a huge problem – both in the classroom and on the playing field. In his Denton office, Dr. Goff sees patients who suffer from a variety of symptoms like chronic abdominal pain, anxiety and depression.
“I see this over and over. I look in the child’s eyes. They are exhausted. I say to the parents, ‘You need to cut back,’” Dr. Goff said. “And it is amazing to me. They say, ‘We can’t. No way. We have a tournament this weekend.’ For any successes we have, we have 100 more burnouts.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with Dr. Goff. A group of eight organizations, including the AAP, released a consensus statement regarding their concern with today’s high school athlete.
The AAP states, “Student athletes report higher rates of sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, mood disturbances, short tempers and inability to concentrate than non-athletes.”
The recommendations focused on the importance of educating students, parents and coaches on mental disorders in student-athletes; the stress involved with today’s athletes and ways to monitor their behavior.
Concerns of the AAP included the injuries and stress related to student athletes training year round, which doesn’t give them time to rest and recover.
The AAP said these athletes also face stress from poor performance on the playing field, injuries, concerns about getting cut from the team and trouble keeping up with school work, along with their extracurricular activities.
Because of the stress involved, student-athletes may suffer from “a pattern of lack of sleep and under-recovery” and chronic fatigue that puts him or her at risk for anxiety and depression. Other issues include:
- Physical (Physical conditioning, injuries, environmental conditions)
- Mental (Game strategy, meeting coaches’ expectations, attention from media and fellow students, time spent in sport, community-service requirements, and less personal and family time)
- Academic (classes, study time, projects, papers, examinations, attaining and maintaining the required grade point average to remain on the team, and earning and maintaining a collegiate or academic scholarship).
With the advent of select sports and recreational leagues, Dr. Gray said children now play the same sport year round without getting a break from those activities. He wants young athletes to have variation in their activities. If not, the repetitive nature of the same sport creates stress and strain especially on growing bones.
Dr. Gray and his colleagues see children who never have a break during the year sometimes playing on two or three different teams during the same season. He said it’s too much stress on their growing skeleton, causing muscle aches, strains and pain.
Both Dr. Gray and Dr. Goff stress children, especially before they reach high school, should focus on participating in several different sports to prevent using the same muscles year round. They say it also helps the child avoid getting burned out on that specific sport.
“For kids, sports are great and you learn a lot from them, but they should be fun,” Dr. Gray said. “Kids need to enjoy them too. You don’t really want a 12 or 13 year old performing to the point where they are having injuries that could actually impact them as an adult.”
Dr. Goff admits this subject quickly places him on his soapbox. But it’s because he sees so many of his patients facing stress and are simply not happy.
He sees them come in with dark circles under their eyes and behind closed doors and just one-on-one with him, they admit to a different story than what they have been telling to their parents.
Far too often, Dr. Goff hears the regrets of parents, but only when it’s too late. The child has gone off to college and the parent wishes they had taken a trip to the Grand Canyon with their family, instead of racing off to another game.
“I ask the parents to leave the room so I can talk to the child,” Dr. Goff said. “I ask, ‘Do you really want to do this?” They say, ‘No I’m tired.”
The scary part of this story is that far too often the parents are trying to do what’s best for their child, but in reality they are doing harm.
Dr. Gray said he is beginning to see injuries in children as young as 8 years old with ACL injuries. Injuries that were once thought not to happen until children were much older.
“Another problem is that the really good, young kids are getting left behind,” Dr. Gray said. “They are burned out because they are pegged to be the superstar and they get over worked, over trained and over pushed. Some get burned out and pushed to the wayside and other kids, who were not as big, catch up by the time they are in middle school. They have more passion and they are not burned out. And they pass them by.”
Both Dr. Gray and Dr. Goff also see phantom injuries – muscle aches or headaches. Anatomically there seems to be nothing wrong with the child. In reality it’s the child hinting he or she needs a break.
So what should a parent do? Here’s a start:
- During the year give the child down time and a chance to recuperate. This is the case physically for sports and mentally for school.
- Vary the child’s routine to avoid burnout
- Give your children an opportunity to tell you if they are enjoying themselves.
“It’s easy to succumb to parental peer pressure,” Dr. Gray said. “Parents are afraid if they don’t do something their child will be left behind. What’s most important is that your children enjoy sports, or enjoy their activities and has a good mental outlook on life. It’s hard for parents to not live vicariously through their children. It’s a hard lesson for parents. You want the best for your child and want your child to be successful. But sometimes less is more.”