Have you ever sat down with your child and mapped out their athletic schedule?

Take out your calendar and write out how many times they practice and for how long, and then tally the number of games and tournaments they play in a month.

Do they take any days off? If they are choosing to play only one sport year-round, are they taking several months away from their sport each year?

These are the kind of questions that parents need to be asking themselves to protect the health and athletic longevity of their children. In contrast to generations of parents who grew up in the 60's, 70's and 80's, a growing number of our youth in this era are participating in highly structured and overly scheduled athletic environments. Few regulations exist on the amounts of training allowed in youth sports. In fact, I am unaware of any standard limits with regard to training and competition.

I often wonder how is it possible that the NCAA limits the number of practices among the Division I programs, but no such regulations exist for youth sport athletes? Frequently, we hear complaints about how difficult (physically) it is for college men’s and women’s teams on final four weekend to play the semifinal and final games with only a one day break in between. Yet somehow, youth lacrosse teams often play up to five tournament games in back-to-back days in extreme weather conditions.

Why is this OK for youth but not OK for young adults who are stronger and less vulnerable to dehydration and overuse injuries? Fortunately, US Lacrosse and other sport organizations are now taking a closer look at this, but the responsibility still lies on us as parents to be the gatekeepers with regard to how much our kids train. Sometimes we have to be willing to say “no, you can't go to that tournament,” or “no, you can't play on a team that practices five days a week while you are also playing on another team.”

While we know that specialization in one sport prior to puberty can be a risk factor for overuse injury, stress and burnout, we also know that training too many hours is a significant risk to the mind and body. So, what are the appropriate steps we can take to avoid overtraining?

  1. Constantly monitor our players’ weekly schedules. Experts suggest that our kids should not train and/or compete in their sport for more than 16-20 hours in a week. Ideally, this would mean that our kids play on one sport per season. If there happens to be some overlap, then it is wise to follow these hourly restrictions so that the total amount of play doesn't exceed the 16-20 hour mark.
  2. For those of us who have children who specialize in lacrosse or another sport, they should be taking at least 2-3 months off a year from the game to allow their bodies and minds to recover.
  3. When our kids are starting a new season, we need to make sure that they increase their training and play by no more than 10% each week.

Our job as parents is to protect the bodies, minds and spirits of our youth lacrosse players. It is important that we attend to the big picture of their athletic careers and not get caught up in the wave of pressure to become great in a short period of time. As someone once said to me, "You wouldn't go to your first session with an athletic trainer and say, 'I want to become the incredible hulk after one meeting.'"

Training and competition, while offering great opportunities and experiences for our youth, needs to be managed with a long-term vision that keeps our kids healthy and engaged in lacrosse for a long period of time.

Do you put a cap on your players’ weekly and yearly sports participation? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section.

This post is part of the “10 Fundamental Tips for Coaching Youth Lacrosse” series. Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D., is the co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Psychology Program and Paces Institute, and a member of the US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee.

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