How Much is Too Much? Overtraining Our Young Athletes

Rodney Wilson Headshot (Small)Rodney Wilson is conditioning coach at Conquer Training (Kingston, ON) and former Head Strength Coach at Queen’s University, with years of experience developing complete athletes. In his free time Rodney trains for ultra marathons and drives his daughters to every activity under the sun.

Today’s young athletes and their parents are faced with an expectation that demands MORE. More practice time, more training time, more competitions, more money, more commitment, more equipment, more money (did I mention that one?) more, more, more.

This overarching theme of sporting success also frowns upon LESS. Less months of the year dedicated to a specific sport, less time at practice due to fatigue, less ‘excuses’ for poor performance, less commitment to the off season team training. The results of this approach are a significant number of adolescent injuries, burn out, anxiety, and an inability for the young athletes to actually perform at their optimal levels.

Finding a balance while tangled up in this cycle is extremely difficult.

Seasons are becoming extremely blurred within our sporting culture. With the advent of indoor soccer fields, year round ice surfaces, ‘sport specific’ training facilities and other options, our children are expected to continue training with their team year-round.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends limiting 1 sporting activity to a maximum of 5 days per week with at least 1 day off from any organized physical activity. In addition, athletes should have at least 2 to 3 months off per year from their particular sport during which they can let injuries heal, refresh the mind, and work on strength, conditioning, and proprioception in hopes of reducing injury risk. In addition to overuse injuries, if the body is not given sufficient time to regenerate and refresh, the youth may be at risk of “burnout.”

Joel Brenner, Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes

I know a lot of you are about to tune out!  2-3 months off basketball??  2-3 months of track?? What? No way. That could only leave me (or my child) miles behind the competition. Therein lies the issue. That is what we are told to believe.

Generally, coaches will set up off season training opportunities because they are also told to believe just that. Often coaches set up these training sessions with the almighty dollar in mind.  Coaches and clubs can make good money by promoting and accommodating the belief that more is better. I see it every week and I see it in every sport.

By no means am I suggesting that our young athletes sit on the couch for 2-3 months. Instead, they should redirect their focus to supplemental conditioning, other sports, camps and anything else that they can enjoy. In the competitive world of elite youth sports, they may benefit from joining a recreational, no pressure sport so that they can have FUN!  Again, there’s that ‘tune out’ feeling.  The immediate reaction to a suggestion of recreational sports is often one of “Forget it! My kid isn’t going to get injured doing something completely unrelated to being better at his or her sport.”

My suggestion is that a young athlete who is given the choice to play ultimate Frisbee for 6 weeks instead of more basketball, will become a more complete athlete. He or she will develop supplemental fitness, agility and coordination. They will also ENJOY sport for sport, without the pressures of success or failure.

My daughter is currently on a 2-week hiatus from gymnastics. All told, with frequent blocks of time off from training, she will have a total of 3 months off from her ‘main’ sport within the year. She loves the gym. She is literally giddy with excitement and makes improvements in her skills every time she trains. However, today, she is absolutely loving the canoe/kayak camp that she is attending. She rode her bike to the camp this morning, she will be paddling a little racing kayak throughout the day, swimming, doing crafts and having a great time.

Physically, she will be developing her proprioceptive abilities, strength, flexibility and power. Mentally she will be enjoying sport for the sake of sport. I challenge anyone to convince me that spending these 2-weeks in the gym would be better for her overall athletic development than the canoe/kayak camp.

Another important aspect to note here is that this 2-3 month time period does not necessarily have to be completed in one ‘chunk’. Over the course of one year, multiple 2-3 week breaks can accommodate recovery, rejuvenation and refocus.

Rest days should not be misinterpreted as lazy days. A rest or recovery day can consist of absolutely anything except hard training for a specific sport. Rest days can be canoe trips, bike rides, golfing or even yard work! Anything. The gift, but also the curse of managing a young athletes activity levels is the endless source of energy that they need to burn.

I will close by addressing the role of a strength and conditioning coach in this evolution of elite youth training. The fitness industry is marred by a massive range of abilities and qualifications amongst trainers. I have found that many trainers simply put together a ‘hard’ program for their young athletes and hope to leave them totally spent by the end of a workout. This usually placates the parents’ need for more. More anguish, more challenge, more bang for their buck.

I like to have parents attend at least the first couple of sessions with their kids. This enables me to outline my expectations for training sessions. Injury prevention comes first in my planning. I manage movement patterns, address the common injury risks for a given sport/athlete and build from there. My young athletes will attest to the fact that the workouts are challenging, but sometimes they go home without their lungs popping out of their mouths! I assess their energy levels when they arrive at the studio. I factor in the time of year at school. I take a look at the practice and competition schedule that they have provided.

These, amongst other parameters, help me to determine what a training session should look like. From there, I give the athletes exercises that entail jumping, throwing, running, chasing and many other ‘fun’ activities. All the while, I harp at them to maintain finicky little technique cues that help to keep them healthy.

This formula is working. I have taken young elite athletes from the brink of burnout and rekindled their love of their sport. I have also managed to mix strength and conditioning into some absolutely insane sporting schedules and in turn fostered improvement in every aspect of performance, without injury or burnout.

More of the same is not always better. We just need to convince more people of that fact.

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