Sports Participation in Children

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Sports participation in children


Sports participation in children involves the issue of children playing or competing in sports and the related concerns regarding nutrition , growth, injury and psychosocial factors.


As more and more children participate in recreational or competitive sports activities, the issue of sports participation has increasingly become a topic of discussion. It is estimated that 25% of girls and 50% of boys aged eight to 16 participate in sports in the United States. Even more participate in sports in the United Kingdom. These numbers have increased the discussion and research on the effects of early athletic training on children's growing bodies. Specific areas of concern include the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, nutrition, sexual maturation, psychosocial implications, and injury prevention and treatment.


Studies have shown that, in general, childhood activity is on the decline and childhood obesity is on the rise. Requirements for physical education in schools have become less stringent. One survey sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control reports that 50% of high school students are not enrolled in physical education, and more than 80% of high school students do not participate in 20 minutes of physical activity three times per week. There is clearly a need for the encouragement of physical activity in children and adolescents. At the other end of the spectrum, however, injuries and other ramifications of intense athletic participation cannot be ignored.

One of the major concerns related to sports participation is the incidence of injury. Thirty to 40 percent of all pediatric accidents occur during athletics, with 10% of all childhood head injuries being related to sports participation. An estimated three million children and adolescents visit emergency rooms each year for sports-related injuries, while another five million require a visit to their physicians. Some parents and professionals view these statistics as viable reasons to keep children away form organized sports participation, however, a large number of injuries occur during unsupervised activities as well, such as diving and skiing. In any case, excessive stress to the body can cause tissue injuries; particularly concerning being those to the epiphyseal plates, as they can result in growth disturbances.

Research studies have identified several factors contributing to sports injuries , including but not limited to inadequate equipment, intensity of competition, and poor playing technique. Preventative measures can address many of these contributors in order to help reduce risk, but some researchers opine that increased surveillance is still required to determine which preventative measures would be most effective. Surveillance would include determination of the most prevalent types of injuries, who is affected and why they occur.

Another area of concern related to early sports participation is nutrition. Proper nutrition is important for all youth, and vital for young athletes. Opponents of early sports participation may point out that children who engage in activities requiring slim figures, such as ballet or gymnastics, may place their growth at risk through inadequate nutrition and even pathologic eating behaviors. One study of rhythmic gymnasts noted that while gymnasts did not have adequate caloric intake for their energy expenditure, the composition of their diets reflected better nutritional practices than those of non-athletes.

Other areas of concern include: cardiac implications, sexual maturation, and psychosocial aspects of sports participation. The research on cardiac function with intense exercise has not demonstrated adverse effects, although opponents may point to research indicating that myocardial function can be depressed after intense exercise. In relation to sexual maturation, athletic girls tend to have a later onset of menstruation than do those not participating in sports. In addition, amenorrhea, or cessation of menstrual period, is common with intense training. Opponents of childhood athletics also point to psychosocial problems caused by anxiety and stress of competition. Research studies have shown that these problems do occur in a small minority of youth athletes due to burnout, inability to participate in other activities, and parental demands. Proponents of sports participation recommend that psychosocial problems can be limited with participation in a variety of sports as opposed to early specialization.

Professional implications

Allied health professionals, including nurses, physical therapists, exercise physiologists and athletic trainers, play important roles in client education, injury prevention and treatment. These professionals may assist clients and their families by:

  • Providing general information regarding benefits and risks to youth athletics so that clients and families can make informed decisions regarding level of participation.
  • Encouraging children to participate in activities consistent with their abilities and interests, while discouraging early specialization, parental pressure and emphasis only on winning.
  • Providing education regarding proper coaching, early identification of signs related to overuse injuries, and importance of rest.
  • Monitoring body composition, height, weight, cardiac function, nutrition, and stress level regularly.
  • Emphasizing the importance of general fitness versus training only sports-specific skills, and the importance of warm-up, cool-down and flexibility.
  • Identifying individual risk factors to injury (e.g., malalignment, muscle-tendon imbalance, disease, improper footwear) and provide education regarding these factors.
  • Recommending and providing pre-participation physi cal examinations that include: medical history; screen ing of body systems; orthopedic evaluation; flexibility, strength, speed, agility, power, endurance, balance, and coordination assessment; and clearance for sports participation by a physician.



Campbell, Suzann K., Darl W. Vander Linden, and Robert J. Palisano. Physical Therapy for Children, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 2000.

Micheli, Lyle J., ed. Clinics in Sports Medicine: Pediatric and Adolescent Sports Injuries. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 2000.


Cupisti, A., et. al. "Nutrition Survey in Elite Rhythmic Gymnasts." Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 40 (December 2000):350-5.

Covington, D.Y., et al. "Kids on the Move: Preventing Obesity Among Urban Children." American Jornal of Nursing. 101 (March 2001): 73-9.

Peggy Campbell Torpey, M.P.T.

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