Venus Williams was practicing her backhand before she started kindergarten. Tiger Woods showed off his putting skills on the evening news at age 2.
But for every prodigy who grows into a successful athlete, thousands of youths suffer physically or psychologically from being pushed to compete at a young age. For that reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children avoid specializing in a sport until they reach adolescence.
"We're trying to help create more well-rounded children," says Eric Small, M.D., a member of the AAP Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. "We're not saying that no kid can train in a sport year-round, but there are some caveats. Parents need to be reminded that there is a higher risk of burnout and a higher risk of injury."
The repetitive motions often demanded by intense training in a single sport can cause overuse injuries, such as stress fractures or tendonitis. Over-training also can contribute to psychological damage, including depression, according to Dr. Small, assistant professor of pediatrics, orthopedics, and rehabilitative medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Thomas W. Rowland, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist in Springfield, Mass., adds this tip: "Let kids sample different sports and keep it low-key so that interest can be sustained over the long haul."
Here are ideas for parents:
Keep it fun.
Don't let your child play when he is injured or feeling pain.
Make sure your child is learning skills, not focusing on competition.
Track your child's growth. Is he getting taller? Putting on weight?
Offer your child a variety of physical activities until at least age 12 or 13.
© 2013 Main Line Health