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Sometimes Less is More: Keeping Young Athletes Healthy and on the Field

January 22, 2024

Our young athletes are exhausted. Between school, family, friends, and sport, these athletes and their families often feel there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done! In the sport setting, many athletes perceive pressure to pursue every opportunity for training and competition to take their skills to the next level. However, for too many young athletes this leads to trouble, and they end up in providers’ offices injured, discouraged, and possibly even burned out. Counseling these families can be challenging, but an updated clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on “Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Young Athletes” provides valuable recommendations for clinicians treating these athletes and their families (10.1542/peds.2023-065129).

A key point in this report is that decreases in performance are often the first sign of an emerging problem in young athletes. By the time they reach the provider’s office, many are under considerable pressure from coaches and others to “get back on track” and are in a miserable cycle of continued performance reductions despite increased effort. For athletes in this situation, lead authors Joel Brenner, MD, and Andrew Watson, MD, from the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters and the University of Wisconsin, emphasize the importance of high-quality recovery for prevention and treatment of these issues. Recovery requires good nutrition, adequate sleep, and rest from both the physical and mental stress of training and competition.

The challenge is that the concept of recovery can be a tough sell for many of these athletes and their families. More is not always better, and the message that we need to deliver is often contrary to information they are getting from multiple other sources. Days off are often perceived by athletes as an opportunity to get in an extra training session, rather than a critical component to injury prevention and performance improvement. In these cases, we may need to “sell” these athletes on the value of quality recovery. When I am selling this concept, I remind my patient athletes that their body is a bit broken down and a bit weaker at the end of each training session than it was before, and it is the recovery process that actually produces improvements in strength and performance. If athletes are training seriously, they need to take their recovery seriously as well.

High-quality recovery not only reduces injury risk, but also improves performance, rejuvenates motivation, and restores time and energy for success in activities outside of sport. Selling recovery to the athletes in your practice is well worthwhile, and the practical recommendations Brenner and Watson outline in this clinical report can help you get your patients back on the field and heading toward their peak performance.

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