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SportsLife: The Power of Pause

Most experts agree that taking time off from their chosen sport is essential in the life of a young athlete. But talking about it is easier than actually doing it.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — SportsLife is a recurring blog examining issues that impact young athletes, their families, officials and the greater community. Topics come from YOU: email them to news@kare11.com with SportsLife - Dana Thiede in the topic line.  

A few weeks back I was at Pagel Activity Center in Minnetonka reffing my final games of the spring youth hockey season and skated up to meet the coaches of one squad. 

"Last games?" I asked. 

"Hockey, yeah," one laughed. "But there's baseball, lacrosse, summer (hockey) skills clinics..."

At that point, his two co-coaches joined him in cracking up. 

In truth, most parents will tell you there really is no downtime in the world of youth sports. Football, soccer and volleyball segue into the games of winter; basketball, hockey or wrestling. As soon as that gear is hung up spring brings lacrosse, softball or baseball. 

And those are just the "official" sports seasons. For athletes and their families who have chosen to specialize in one sport, there are Triple-A teams, camps, clinics and personal training sessions, all of which are designed to hone skills and reach peak performance.

If it sounds exhausting, it often is. The days when the end of a season meant a few weeks off to rest, recuperate and just be a kid hanging out with friends are pretty much gone, and experts in the field of youth sports are increasingly saying it is not a good thing.    

"We really have to think of rest as an essential part of a training regimen," explains Dr. Heather Bergeson, a pediatric sports medicine specialist with TRIA and adjunct clinical assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. "Within tense exercise and competition, there’s going to be load and wear on our muscles, bones and tendons, and they need time then to adequately recover and repair, and if we don’t allow for that, we’re going to set ourselves up for more over-use injuries and also decreases in performance." 

Dr. Bergeson is among those who have expressed concern about the growing trend of one-sport athletes, like those who play hockey or hoops year-round. By not playing a secondary sport that uses and develops different muscles, bones and joints, the athlete risks repetitive stress injuries and perhaps more importantly, mental fatigue and burnout. Transitioning to a different sport in a different season brings new practice and game routines, different teammates and coaches, and renewed enthusiasm for something new. 

Toiling at the same old sport - week after week, month after month and year after year - can end with a child walking away and never playing again. 

"It’s like anything, if you didn’t have the cloudy days like today you wouldn’t appreciate the sunshine, right?" Dr. Bergeson poses. "So we have to have those breaks so we’re ready to come back and feel passionate about it."

So how much time off from a sport is enough to make a difference? Bergeson says three months over the course of a year, a span that seems to be the standard in the world of pediatric sports medicine. In addition, she advocates for monitoring the number of hours a child spends playing or training at a sport each week, saying that number should not exceed a young athlete's age in years. 

The philosophy of taking adequate time away and limiting competition hours makes perfect sense. So why do athletes (and more often, Bergeson says, their parents) find even the thought of a significant break difficult to even consider? It's largely a matter of "keeping up with the Joneses," fearing that if an athlete doesn't play a summer tournament schedule or skips signing up for off-season skills training they will fall behind their peers and say, not make the top travel team when the regular season rolls around. 

"You know what? They do lose a little bit, so it’s a hard argument to try to counter," Bergeson acknowledges. "But I think if an athlete is going to have the potential to go on and play in college or thereafter, that amount of break is not going to matter. They are going to have those inherent skills that are both a little bit genetic and also through practice that will get them there."

"What we see if they’re not taking those times off, they have more risk of overuse and burnout, and then what’s the point?" she continues. "Then you’re not playing. And if you look at collegiate athletes right now, the vast majority were multi-sport athletes that did not specialize."

Bergeson is the team physician for the highly successful U of M Gopher women's hockey team so her stance is based on experience, and other sources back her up. An article published on the Sanford Health blog quotes the scouting research service Tracking Football as reporting 30 of the 32 first-round picks in the 2017 NFL draft played multiple sports. 

And if the argument about not taking time off involves earning a college scholarship, a 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) throws a serious bucket of cold water on it. AAP found only 3 to 11% of high school athletes go on to play at the college level, and only 1% of those receive scholarship money. Making the pros is an even longer shot: AAP's research says just 0.03 to 0.5% of those taking part in high school athletics will make a living as a professional playing their sport. 

All this helps deliver us back to the ice rink in Minnetonka, and the dads who could only laugh over the control youth sports has over the lives of their children... and in turn, over their own. Dr. Bergeson and other sports pediatricians say parents need to regain control by making sure their young athletes are taking time away from their sport on a yearly, monthly, weekly and daily basis, even while in season.  

"Ideally they should have one or two days (each week) where they’re really not doing anything," Bergeson says. "That doesn’t mean you can’t go for a walk, bike ride or do yoga, something restorative, but if they’re not building those (days off) in, I’m really starting to think about how is this playing out with their overuse injury, or feelings of endurance or mental burnout."

Editor's note: Dr. Heather Bergeson is part of a special Women's Sports Medicine program at TRIA/Health Partners that takes a comprehensive approach to treating and training female athletes from youth to post-menopause. Female athletes can face unique challenges due to factors like age-related hormone fluctuations and narrower spaces between joints, which can lead to a higher likelihood of certain injuries. For more check out a special page on the TRIA website.



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