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Dany, Costa Rica, Summer 2004 Parent Questions

Hi Dany,

My daughter who is 8 years-old has been playing AYSO since age 4 and is trying out for an U9 club soccer team. My concern is the age factor. Is she too young to play club soccer? If so, what is the right age? She loves the game and I don't want her to get frustrated and lose interest if she has difficulties at this level of play.

A second opinion on this issue would be greatly appreciated. (Raul Solorio)

Dear Raul

Many parents are agonizing over the narrow path between the need to balance the risk of early burnout and career ending injuries over falling behind the competitive crowd. This is a very tough dilemma and, unfortunately, I have no easy answers to this important question. To be able to weight in as many of the possible factors involved, one needs first to examine the not very publicized but clearly established facts.

The longer and harder your child is involved in competitive soccer programs the higher the risk of career-ending injury and/or premature burnout. The father of a successful professional British soccer player held him back from heavy competition until he turned 16. This child now turned adult hardly missed a beat as he embarked on a successful professional soccer career. The rational was to keep the child healthy and work hard at fundamentals. It most certainly paid off in this case.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "soccer is second only to basketball for oral, facial and dental injuries in sports." To help reduce the incidence of nonfatal head and facial injuries the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of protective eyewear and mouth guards.

Serious injuries to the head in soccer are strongly associated with head impact with goalposts, head-to-head, and knee-to-head impact. There is no data to support the banning of heading in youth soccer, but it is an undisputable fact that the more experienced the player, the more often he/she uses her/his head as a game strategy. Several studies that investigated professional soccer players concluded that the extent and the level of competition were directly related to permanent cognitive impairment. Thus, I would urge parents of childrem that are considering an early start in a competitive environment to seriously contemplate some form of head protection.

In a July 2000 article, the American Academy of Pediatrics identified three of the potential consequences of early specialization in sports: stress, overtraining, and burnout. While stress is not an exclusively negative phenomenon, Weinberg & Gould (1995), reported that in 1 out of 10 cases excessive stress may lead to some serious mental and behavioral problems.

Overtraining results from excessive training and constant competition with inadequate recovery time. The most salient symptoms of overtraining are physical and mental fatigue, irritability, and a tendency for an increased rate of injury. The stress of a constant pressure to excel along with a lingering sensation of pain often leaves the young athlete in a state of physical and metal exhaustion.

Last, but not least, burnout is the consequence of continuous physical and mental pressure without the provision of a proper recuperation period. Using a car analogy, burnout is the time one blows a gasket and the engine now needs a complete overhaul.

Dr. Jennifer J. Waldron, from the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports concurs with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that parents should be encouraged to help their child realize that soccer is only one aspect of their lives and that there are many other important activities that may serve to keep a child fit and happy. Early specialization in one sport undermines the potential discovery and development of a variety of talents a child may possess. It also adds concentrated physical pressure on the bodily organs and limbs that are excessively taxed by the specific activity or special position the child plays. When tested, retired soccer players, for example, had knee and ankle age that was equal to arthritis of the joint that was present in individuals that were 20-30 years older. Clearly, an early start and a prolonged career are associated with an accelerated wear-and-tear on the body. I suspect that new data in future studies will reveal an even greater amount of damage since the age of first participation in tournament play is dropping while the intensity and level of play are steadily on the rise.

Finally, one of the most stressful experiences of young athletes is a feeling of diminished control over her/his life. It is no secret that winning is the underlying expectation of any competitive event. The child must be made aware of the fact that he/she may have control over striving to win and trying their best, but may have little or no control over an actual outcome of a competitive event. Helping children in placing their sport in the proper perspective and assisting them in the setting of realistic goals will empower children and allow them to have more control over their sport experience.

In case you decide to enroll your child in club soccer, I recommend that you spend some time talking to other club parents, kids, and coaches/owners and that you spend some time carefully observing your child and her process of adaptation to this new and often hectic environment. Commit at first to the shortest possible time frame or training cycle, and do not hesitate to pull your child out even if it results in lost tuition. In case it is an option, buy the early withdrawal insurance. Not having to worry about lost money (often more than $1,500 per session) will facilitate a child-centered decision when it comes down to it.

I have just scratched the surface of this important topic but I nevertheless hope this gives you some food for thought.



References and additional suggested readings

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2000, July). Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes: Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Pediatrics, 106(1), 154-157. Retreived July 06, 2003 from;106/1/154
  • Fry, R.W., Morton, A.R., & Keast, D. (1991). Overtraining in athletes: An update. Sports Medicine, 12, 32-65.
  • Gould, D. (1993). Intensive sport participation and the prepubescent athlete: Competitive stress and burnout. In B.R. Cahill & A.J. Pearl (Eds.), Intensive participation in children’s sports (pp. 19-38). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Gould, D, & Dieffenbach, K. (2002). Overtraining, underrecovery, and burnout in sport. In M. Kellmann (Ed.), Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes (pp. 25-35). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Hawley, C.J., & Schoene, R.B. (2003). Overtraining syndrome: A guide to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31(6), 25-31.
  • Hawley, C.J., & Schoene, R. B. (2003). Overtraining syndrome: Why training too hard, too long, doesn't work. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31(6), 47-48.
  • Henschen, K.P. (1998). Athletic staleness and burnout: Diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology:Personal growth to peak performance (3rd ed.) (pp. 398-408). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
  • Hollander, D.B., Meyers, M.C., & LeUnes, A. (1995). Psychological factors associated with overtraining: Implications for youth sport coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18(1), 3-20.
  • Jarver, J. (2003, Fall). Minimizing the overtraining syndrome. Track Coach, 165, 5282-5283.
  • Kellmann, M. (2003, Summer). Underrecovery and overtraining: Different concepts - similar impact? Olympic Coach, 15(3), 4-7.
  • Kuipers, H., & Van-Breda, E. (2003). Overtraining. In M. Hargreaves (Ed.), Physiological bases of sports performance (pp. 108-121). Sydney, Australia: McGraw-Hill.
  • Norris, T. (2002). An overview of the effects of overtraining in female athletes: Amenorrhoea. Strength and Conditioning Coach, 10(2), 27-28.
  • O' Connor, B., Enoksen, E., Wells, C., & Onsgard, E. (2002). Overtraining. In, B. O'Connor, B. (Ed.), Female fitness on foot: Walking, jogging, running, orienteering (pp.137-141). Terre Haute, IN: Wish.
  • Peterson, K. (2003, Summer). Athlete overtraining and underrecovery: Recognizing the symptoms and strategies for coaches. Olympic Coach, 15(3), 16-17.
  • Petit, M. (2003). An overtraining message for junior high girls. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31(3), 49.
  • Smith, R. E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 36-50.
  • Testa, M. (2003). Facts on overtraining. Performance Conditioning Soccer, 9(5), 12.
  • Turner, J., & Byrne, M. (2003). Proper recovery: Ways to avoid fatigue and overtraining. Performance Conditioning Soccer, 9(5), 1-2, 12.
  • Waldron, J. J. (2000, Summer). Stress, Overtraining, and Burnout Associated with Participation in Sport: Is Your Child At-Risk? Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. Retreived July 06, 2003 from
  • Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (1995). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL : Human Kinetics.

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