Think back to when you were a child. What did you remembering doing after school and on the weekends? Maybe you had a kick about in the local park, or went to a tap class with your best friend? Maybe you spent your time trying to pull wheelies on your bicycle, or climbing trees to get away from an annoying younger sibling? I was a very active child – I walked to school, spent my lunch times in a playground practicing netball shots or skipping, and my knees were rarely without adornment of sticking plasters. Even into secondary school, despite playing hockey and volleyball (as well as any who was 5’3” could), I don’t ever remember not having time to do my homework, play with friends, or watch ‘Top of the Pops’. I had fun time, and as an adult I continued to love sports, swapping netball for marathons and triathlons, and switching trees for mountains.
Fast forward 30 years from my youth, and things seem very different. This week I have seen three children (aged 10, 13 and 14) who between them were clocking up over 70 hours of training – per week! If we consider that a sensible rule of thumb is one hour of sport, per year of age, per week, these three are mammoth outliers. All three were damaged musculoskeletally. Pelvic stress fractures and a degenerate lumbar discs with facet joint OA changes are not findings we should be seeing on MRI in this age group. The fourteen year old looked less like a teenager and more like a pre-schooler, and worrying showed zero signs of entering puberty.
Asking around amongst my peer group, this situation is alarming common. Schools with a sporting reputation attract sporty types, but when you’re good at sports, everyone wants a piece of you. Before you know it, you’re signed up to country cross country, a football academy and are training for twelve hours per week on a tennis court.
So how does this happen? It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of a pushy-parent, power-crazed coach, or even the sport itself, (I’ve never met a ‘slacker’ in the swimming or gymnastics world). But what about the kids themselves? I’ve come to believe that often they are the hardest task-masters of their schedule, fuelled by a dollop well-intentioned parental ‘collusion’ thrown on top. As a Doctor, I wholeheartedly believe in patient choice, but do our children necessarily always know what’s best for them?
We live in a world of advancing obesity and metabolic meltdown, and yet sometimes I find myself in the bizarre position of actively discouraging more exercise.
Whilst we need to champion the vitally important role of sport and physical activity at every age, for me, the time has come to blow the whistle on the madness of overscheduling sport in our children’s lives.