I am really hoping that at least some of you were surprised reading the title of this blog. I’m hoping for at least a raised eyebrow or even better, a dropped jaw, because really, the words “chronic injury” and “children” have no business being in the same sentence. And yet I see and hear of this more often than I ever could have imagined.
Children’s bodies are generally quite resilient. Sometimes they can take terrible spills and with a little tweak here and there they are as good as new. They can do amazingly weird and tangled-up movements that make us cringe just watching while they giggle. They can run around all day and not be in the least bit sore the next day. If this is the case, then just how much strain do you think it requires for a child to suffer from a chronic injury? A lot. A whole lot more than any child should be subjected to.
Training like adults
There is a disturbing movement in today’s society for children to be pushed to play sports too often and too intensely. Eight-year-old hockey players are on the ice 27 days a month. Nine-year-old soccer players are being told they have to drop all other activities and play all year ‘round if they want to succeed. Fourteen-year-old ringette players are missing weeks of school to go to tournaments. House league teams are training four days a week.
This is true across all sports at all levels, and no one is blinking an eye. How can this be? When I tell people I think this is a bad thing on so very many levels people either look at me like I have two heads or they shrug their shoulders and say, “Well that’s just the way it is.” No, no, and no I say. Things have to change.
Let me tell you about some of the cases I have seen and heard about through my clients, and then maybe you will understand my adamancy. I have seen a family of uber-competetive people pushing their young children to play the same sport all year. Both of the kids had injuries where I advised a period of rest. Neither stopped. When one was diagnosed with a condition related to growth and repetitive strain that, if not resolved, could result in permanent bone damage, I was told he couldn’t possibly take time off because he had to go try out for the Ontario team that weekend. I strongly advised against it. They went and I haven’t heard from them since.
Sport comes before common sense
Another client of mine suffered a serious concussion (and not his first) while playing hockey. He came to see me a few months later and he was still having difficulty dealing with bright light, loud noises, and was only able to attend school for about an hour a day. In chatting with him he mentioned something about hockey practice. When I questioned him he told me that he was playing hockey! When I spoke to his family about it, the answer I received was that he had to play hockey as it was part of his schooling. I gave them some information about when to return to sport after a concussion and advised he stop immediately. They also never returned to see me.
Recently a client of mine told me about a friend of her daughter’s who does gymnastics. The young lady is 14 years old and has already had two hip surgeries and countless other injuries, yet she still does the sport several days a week. I have heard stories of stress fractures in 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds living with constant pain, and 10-year-olds who have already had multiple concussions.
Where does this mentality come from? How is it okay to push a child to play while injured, let alone risk permanent damage to their health? This over-zealousness doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is part of a culture that has gone awry.
Pushing resiliency too far
When I see a child who keeps returning with injuries, it is a sign that the body is under too much stress. As I mentioned earlier, children’s bodies can put up with quite a lot, so if they are constantly injured then things have gone way too far. Kids also have the added factor of growth to contend with. This is far more significant an influence than we realize. During periods of rapid growth children can have pain even without doing activity, let alone if they are pushing themselves six days a week.
When a child presents with chronic injury it is almost always because they are doing only one sport all the time. This means doing the same movements in the same patterns repeatedly. That is a lot to ask even of an adult body. As adults we are perhaps more aware of the importance of cross training. Doing different sports which work different muscles in varying movement patterns is a concept that has gained more traction with adults, and yet we expect children to do the same thing over and over again without consequences.
Chronic injury in children also may have far more serious ramifications than in adults. Constant pulling on developing bones can result in issues with bone formation. Surgeries in childhood can produce scar tissue and restricted movement patterns down the road. Altering movement patterns to deal with chronic pain can also lead to early deterioration of joints and arthritis in adulthood. There is a price to pay for this craziness. It may not rear its ugly head until several decades later, but the person will eventually pay.
My own solution
As my kids are getting a little older and starting to get more involved in sports, I know we are going to have some decisions to make. While we are well aware of the many fantastic benefits of sport, we want to temper that with some common sense. We do not feel that a six-year-old needs to do four hours of hockey in a weekend. We do not feel that there is any benefit to waking a child at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to go to the rink if she doesn’t want to.
Our solution? We simply say no sometimes. If we feel there is too much on the schedule for a weekend we pick and choose where we will go. We want to instill in our children early on a sense of balance, not just for them, but for the whole family. We hope to make them aware that our family is a team where everyone’s needs matter equally and no one person’s activities should hijack all four of us.
I know what you’re thinking – that’s all fine and dandy while they’re young but when they get older, your pick-and-choose approach just won’t fly. I believe it would if more parents embraced this way of thinking. The threat of “you’re off this soccer team if you don’t drop all other activities and play year ‘round” wouldn’t hold much weight if everybody stood up to the ridiculousness and just said, “okay, see ya!”
Speak up and stand your ground
Why don’t more parents speak up when the house league hockey coach insists on training four days a week and going to five out of town tournaments a year involving missed school days? Why do we get bullied into pulling our kids out of other sports so they can stay on that one competitive team? Why do we feel it necessary to push our kids so hard their health as adults suffers? These are hard questions we have to ask ourselves, and I refuse to succumb to the standard answers.
As for the doubters, I am reminded of a something that happened when my daughter was a toddler. As soon as she started walking I stopped carrying her into the daycare from the car. There were some days when she didn’t want to walk, but I flat out refused to pick her up. One day as she was having a fit over this, another mom went by carrying her child who was perfectly capable of walking. She looked at me standing there in the parking lot freezing and trying to convince my daughter to walk and said, “One day you’ll just give in.” I smiled politely and told myself I would not. And I never did.
I will find a way for my children to participate in sport in a healthy balanced way. Somehow I will figure it out. It would be nice though to have some like-minded support along the way, so if you agree with a modified approach to things let me know. It would do my heart good.