Last week I touched on the overwhelming pressure that is being heaped upon developing young athletes.  A recent national survey lends strong evidence to support this opinion:
- 59 percent of young athletes have voiced concern that they expect to be injured during an upcoming game.
- Half of the children surveyed said they hide injuries so that they can continue to play. 42 percent of kids who have been hurt during the game say they were called foul names if they sat out — some by their own parents.
- 16 percent say that either they tried to hurt another player during the game, or one of their teammates did.
- Some children said that their coaches, teammates, and/or parents have encouraged them to play while injured — 11 percent of children in the survey were offered money and/or gifts to play with an injury. 
I won’t rehash last weeks article here but suffice it to say kids are feeling more pressure to perform at earlier ages than ever before and they just aren’t equipped mentally or emotionally to carry that burden. Youth sports should be pure joy for kids and yet it is very likely many of them compete with some sense of fear brought on by the threat of physical injury, failure to perform, or falling short of others expectations.
I want to narrow my focus this week on one particular aspect from the highlighted survey and that is the issue of kids hiding injuries to stay in the game.
If you watch professional sports inevitably broadcasters routinely praise athletes for playing in pain, throwing out phrases like “he/she is a warrior!” So there is no doubt that athletes are glorified for being tough and overcoming injuries. I mean what kid wouldn’t like to be known as a “warrior?” As parents and coaches we definitely can’t control what is coming from the media but we should counsel kids on the difference between playing with minor pain or injury.
Playing through a little soreness could be fine as long as body mechanics aren’t compromised. The best strategy is to use your eyes. What are they showing you? You should have a good idea of how the athlete normally moves. If they seem to be a step behind, dragging not moving with the same fluidity of motion chances are they are favoring or attempting to mask an injury. This would be the time to pull the child from competition before the altered movement patterns lead to a bigger problem. Of course when coaching kids between the ages of 10 ½ to 18 with a peak around 14, the regression in movement quality may be complicated by a growth spurt. However altered movement quality resulting from an injury will usually be more glaring while the poor movement resulting from a growth spurt would be subtler and would present evidence gradually over time. It’s as important in my mind to pull the reigns back on young athletes during the growth spurt. Rather than “cranking” up the intensity of their training/competition it would serve them better over the long haul to ease them through this stage with more basic training activities.
Youth sports are as competitive as ever and many kids may fear losing their spot/playing time. Again this comes back to the performance based youth sport culture that currently dominates the landscape. If the emphasis were where it should be on long-term improvement kids would likely feel less pressure to hide injuries out of fear of losing playing time. And coaches schooled in the art of long term athletic development would feel less urgency to win and instead focus on the needs of their athletes’.
In youth sport, there are kids who view themselves in absolute terms. They use "all or nothing" concepts such as being fast or slow, strong, or weak, fat or thin. Everything is categorized as successful or unsuccessful, good or bad.
Such thinking leads to labeling. Negative labels (“he’s not tough”) are detrimental because they are internalized and become permanent thoughts that linger in a young athlete's mind during training/competition. The end result is a poor self-concept, high levels of stress, and low future expectations regarding performance.
A young athlete will do just about anything to avoid acquiring one of these labels and that includes not revealing when they are truly hurting.
If we want the next generation to embrace an active lifestyle for the rest of their lives we have to put their needs ahead of any plastic trophies. Sports should be used to develop qualities that will enhance their values and character. When that is the focus championships, scholarships and trophies will be the inevitable result.
Youth Athletic Development Specialist