How Much Is Too Much?

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent
Kenneth and Jenny Worden-Perks with sons A.J. (left) and Will.

Kenneth and Jenny Perks have a simple rule that threatens to get complicated easily.

"We keep it to one sport per year, maybe two," said Jenny, 50, of Clintonville, "but definitely only one sport per season."

For example, A.J., 12, and Will, 10, might have baseball during the summer, flag football in the fall and Scouts during the "off-seasons" of winter and spring. The family also makes time for church once a month, while family gatherings and camping take precedence over all else.

In other words, it's easy and simple-until it's not. As many parents know, children's activities and responsibilities can quickly pile up without anyone even noticing it.

"We know families that participate in-and I'm not kidding-soccer twice a year, basketball, baseball, guitar, chess club, drama club, speech contests and more, sometimes doing three activities at once, all year round, even scheduling their vacations around sporting events," Jenny said. "We would rather do a few things thoroughly and well and enjoy ourselves doing them than be swept up in the toxic tornado of time."

The Perks' rule of one sport per season, at most, is generally one that experts advocate.

"Most of us would recommend trying to take, if not a whole season, at least a month or two off at some point during the year to let your body recharge," said Dr. Steven Cuff, who works in sports medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "That's regardless of whether you're playing the same sport or a different sport each season. Your body still needs some time off during the year to rest and recuperate."

This is especially true, Cuff said, for still-developing bodies. Children's growth plates are open from around age 10 or 11 and often close during the teenage years. Because parts of the bone are still growing, kids typically are more susceptible to overuse injuries and stress fractures than muscle problems.

A good approach, Cuff said, is to aim for fewer practice hours per week than the child's age.

"The risk of serious overuse injuries significantly increases if you pass that threshold," he said.

While the research was done specifically for practice hours, Cuff said it also can apply to long tournament weeks, as with club soccer, where teams often play multiple games a day.

Dr. Nardia Ataman, a physician with Crosswoods Pediatrics, warned that overscheduled kids-particularly teenagers-can be susceptible to mental health issues, too.

"Kids who are overscheduled (with sports) tend to be more stressed, and on top of that you have to add in grades and schoolwork, and that can lead to an increase in levels of anxiety and depression," she said.

Depression and anxiety, in turn, can lead to other physical concerns. Children may begin to lose sleep, or even their appetite, Ataman said. They may complain about feeling fatigued or having stress-induced headaches and stomachaches. Parents might even think their child has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she said, because the symptoms can be similar.

"It's hard for parents to know when and where to strike that balance, but as long as kids are able to do these sports and still maintain good grades and overall health, and not have too high of a stress level, what they're doing is probably OK," Ataman said.

When participation in extracurricular activities starts to affect their energy level or emotional state, it might be time to scale things down.

Cuff also warned against specializing too early. For most sports, he said, kids will have more success, fewer injuries and less risk of burnout if they wait to specialize until the mid-teen years. This is largely because certain sports tend to use the same muscle groups, which can put too much stress on muscles and bones.

Ultimately, doctors advise, the key is to ensure adequate time for rest, fuel and sleep-the latter of which is often overlooked.

"If you get less than six hours of sleep a night, there's an increase in fatigue-related overuse injuries," Cuff said.

If injury does strike, he said, it's vitally important to be properly evaluated and then to rest and rehab appropriately.

"If you don't return the balance and strength in that joint, you're more likely to reinjure it over time," Cuff said.

Physicians say it's OK for parents to take cues from their child. If he's the one who's motivated and pushing to do an activity, there will be fewer problems with burnout and injuries than if parents are pressing the issue, Cuff said.

This is the approach Brandi and Tony Cunningham of Westgate take with their four daughters, while limiting the girls to one sport a year.

"Philosophically, as parents, we kind of view sports as more casual at this age," said Brandi, 32. "They usually bring the idea to me, and I see if we can work it out. Because my goal in life is not necessarily to raise athletes. I want them to have fun."