By: Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, FAAP
Millions of high school boys and girls take part in team sports on courts, in pools, on fields, and in gyms. Millions more join in recreational or competitive sports outside of school. Teen athletes who bloom early or late, however, may have special safety concerns—as will their parents.
As mentioned in Effects of Puberty on Sports Performance, going through puberty can have a significant impact on athletic performance in both positive and negative ways. Further, organized sports leagues tend to group kids by age instead of developmentally. Just as it is unrealistic to expect all children at the same age to achieve the same academic level, it is unrealistic to expect children at the same age to have the same physical development, motor skills, and physical capacity. Some children have a slow growth spurt, while others grow so fast they need a speeding ticket!
Late bloomers (especially boys) may experience this when paired with early bloomers side-by-side on the playing field. For example, two boys are both 14; one looks 9 while the other looks 19! Interesting and amusing as this may sound, it can create significant health and safety risks on the athletic field. You might as well have paired Tinkerbelle against Godzilla!
Reducing the Risk of Injury to Late Bloomers:
About 25% of human growth in height occurs during puberty. During this time, sports safety should be critically considered, as children are more vulnerable to injury during the adolescent growth spurt (AGS). As players get older, stronger and faster, injury rates increase.
There are measures that parents, coaches and athletes can take to help improve player safety:
Make sure equipment and safety gear fit your child properly—pads (neck, shoulder, elbow, chest, knee, shin), helmets, mouthguards, face masks or goggles, protective cups, and shoes.
Coaches and officials need to enforce strict rules against headfirst sliding in baseball and softball to prevent head and spine injuries.
In football, have a zero-tolerance policy for head-first hits and other types of illegal tackles. These tackles can lead to severe injuries of the head and neck and are the leading cause of severe injuries in football. See the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement, Tackling in Youth Football, for more information.
Expand non-checking ice hockey programs for boys 15 years and older, and restrict body checking to the highest competition levels starting no earlier than age 15. Coaches are encouraged to follow zero-tolerance rules against any contact to the head, intentional or not. Rules preventing body contact from behind, into or near the boards should also be reinforced. See the AAP policy statement, Reducing Injury Risk from Body Checking in Boys' Youth Ice Hockey, for more information.
Seek out coaches who are well-versed in the nuances of puberty and AGS. Lack of proper coaching education has also been identified as a key reason why many sports injuries occur.
Note: Some early bloomers are actually rather tall for their age, or heavier than normal. These characteristics may make them attractive to coaches for sports where height or girth is an advantage. However, it is important to remember that these children still have immature bones which are susceptible to injury.
A Note About Same-Sex vs. Coed Sports Teams:
Remember, the average age that puberty begins is much different for girls and boys. Around age 13, with a surge in testosterone, most boys are taller, heavier, faster, stronger, bigger, and more powerful than most girls. These discrepancies may place girls at a greater risk for injury and/or at an unfair disadvantage in sports.
For this reason, parents and coaches may move towards separating boys and girls over age 12 in sports and competition, particularly in contact or collision sports. However, if there is no team for girls in a certain sport, girls should be allowed to try out for a spot on the boys' team (in fact, it's the law in some states).
Taking a Balanced Approach:
To support success during the period of adolescent growth, given all of the tremendous variations possible, the proper matching of competition is very important. The unfortunate fact is that today's society places such a heavy emphasis on winning.
An early bloomer enjoys advantages simply due to their early size advantage and strength in comparison to peers. Parents and coaches can emphasize to young athletes that success depends on developing proper skills and not just relying on size. In comparison, there are many talented young athletes who are late bloomers who are funneled out of the developmental pipeline far too soon due to their temporary lack of ability at these younger ages. Many quit because they perceive their struggles to be a lack of competence instead of delayed physical growth. There are many famous athletes that were late bloomers: Tim Lincecum, Tom Brady, Michael Strahan, Anthony Davis, to name a few.
Parents: Do not get down if your child is not MVP. The important thing is that he or she continues to play and to develop, improve upon themselves, and learn new skills.
Coaches: Give all players your equal attention and the playing time each needs to develop his or her skills.
Talk to Your Child's Pediatrician:
Many parents can benefit by having frank discussions with their pediatrician about their child's specific growth pattern so that they can be properly prepared for the road ahead. Whatever the rate of growth, many young teens have an unrealistic view of themselves and need to be reassured by their pediatrician that differences in growth rates are normal.
Additional Information from HealthyChildren.org:
About Dr. Kowal-Connelly:
Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician with 30 years group practice experience and is a voluntary faculty staff physician at Nassau University Medical Center mentoring residents. She also cares for private patients at the Long Island Federally Qualified Health Centers (LIFQHC) in Nassau County. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), she sits on the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, the Council on School Health, and the Section on Obesity. Dr. Kowal-Connelly is a USAT (USA Triathlon) Level I Certified Coach and a USAT Youth & Jr. Coach. She is also founder of www.HealthPoweredByYou.com, where families and organizations can learn strategies for successful lifelong health and wellness and read her blog. She is also the very proud mother of three grown sons. Follow her on Twitter @healthpby.