The Young Athlete

When looking at the sports world for the young male or female athlete, our society in regards to training has become one of “more is better”.  Isolating a young athlete in one sport with year-round training has become more of the majority rather than the minority.  The magnitude of youth sports participation in the United States is overwhelming.  There are approximately 35 million children and young adults between the ages of 6 and 21 participating in sports.  Training for these sports has become more sport-specific and nearly continuous, while overuse injuries are now common among young athletes.  A recent study has shown that 30% to 50% of all pediatric sports injuries are due to overuse and occur twice as frequent as acute injuries.


Overuse injuries result from repetitive trauma that leads to inflammation and/or local tissue damage.  The tissue damage can result in tendonitis, stress fracture, synovitis, entrapment syndromes, and ligament strains.  These injuries are most likely to occur when the athlete changes their intensity or duration of training, as well as the athlete is not well conditioned or not instructed in proper mechanics in performing their sport with increased stress in their joints.  There are many factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic, that contribute to overuse injury.  Some intrinsic factors include growth of the athlete in which their growth cartilage becomes susceptible to repetitive stress, inflexibility, muscle imbalance/weakness, prior injury, and inadequate conditioning.  Some extrinsic factors include too-rapid training progression and/or inadequate rest, inappropriate equipment, incorrect sport technique/mechanics, training on hard or uneven surfaces, and adult or peer pressure to succeed. 


Some of the most common overuse injuries seen in young athletes are, “little league elbow” or injury to the medial compartment of the throwing elbow in the overhand thrower, shin splints in the running athlete, shoulder tendonitis in the swimmer, knee pain in the female athlete, and low back pain in the gymnast.  Most of these injuries can be avoided by recognizing and understanding the factors that contribute to these injuries.  Proper pre-season training to improve flexibility, conditioning, and strength is vital to help avoid injury.  Having the proper coaching available is also critical to avoid repetitive stress injury and injury from improper mechanics in sport-specific activities.  As parents, we must protect our young athletes and most of all; we must allow them to mature in their sport while not pushing them to become superstars at too young an age.  Pushing our children too hard at a young age while expecting too much success early, can not only lead to overuse injuries during the year, but cause that young athlete to “burn-out” and lose motivation to participate at all.