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Teens and Sports

So your child has navigated through preadolescence. What comes next? You guessed it…(music from Jaws here)…the teenage years! Did some of you parents just faint? Relax, if you can. It is an exciting time for most kids involved in sports. The peak of learning sports skills develops during the preteen and teenage years and continues through early adulthood and beyond. Even many adults who were active as teenagers are realizing that they can still perfect their skills, add new ones, and perform sports at very high levels. Yet, the pre-adolescent and adolescent years encompass the most blurring acceleration of developing and refining sports skills, physical and chemical maturation, and emotional growth. There is also the added bonus of being able to enhance areas of expertise with more devoted training. So hang on to your hats.

Even though there are vast skill improvements during this fastpaced period of adolescence, there are many other important changes that occur during the teen years—and if you blink, you might miss them. The bulk of the topics we should talk about concerning adolescence can be summed up by this P soup—puberty, pounds, plates, performance, and psyche. Puberty, as we all know, can be a wonderful time of growth, maturation, acceptance, achievement, and early independence. It can also be hell on earth for some. Approaching adolescence with a positive attitude can allow your child to see all the changes as a normal and positive part of life.

What is puberty?

Growth gone turbo. Garfield becomes Cheetah. Genetics meets Mountain Dew. Besides infancy, adolescence is the only other time in life that you can actually see your kids grow before your very eyes. The changes going on inside that body will blow your mind if it already hasn’t. Puberty is the time when youth have their growth spurt, or the most rapid phase of growth. In general, this growth blue-light special usually arrives in girls between ages 11 and 13 and in boys between ages 13 and 15. As we all know, these are just the average ages of rapid growth. There are kids all over the map when it comes to the timing of when their body enters puberty. Let me define a couple terms here. Chronological age is defined as your literal age since you were born. Bone age is how old your bones are compared with the average population at a particular stage of bone maturation. Julie can be 13 years old, but have the bones of a 10-year-old because she has not yet gone through puberty. Depending on many factors, children go through puberty at various times. It would be easy if every child hit puberty at the same age, but we did not write those rules.

Growth plates

Before puberty, the ends of our bones have plates of cartilage that are the areas responsible for making the bones grow longer. These growth plates are unique to kids and consist of layers of growing cartilage sandwiched between bone on either side. Once puberty is over, the growth plate closes and turns to bone. The bone stops growing, and you don’t have to buy new clothes for a while—at least until the next fashion trend. However, during childhood and puberty, the surrounding bone, as well as the muscles and tendons, are actually stronger than the soft cartilage growth plate, making it a sitting duck for injury. A sprained ankle in a young growing athlete is less likely to be a ligament sprain and more likely to be an injury to the growth plate because it is the weak link in the bone. Think of the growth plate as an Oreo cookie. It can come apart at its fault line without much force.

Athletic performance

Performance can be significantly affected by puberty in positive and negative ways. Increases in body size, hormones, and muscle strength all serve to potentially enhance performance. However, during the period of most rapid growth, there may be a temporary decline in balance skills and body control. With quick increases in height and weight, the body’s center of gravity is changed dramatically. New signals from a higher observation point also require adjustments in the brain’s interpretation of those signals, and the adolescent may show signs of the “clumsy teenager.”

This phase can interfere with further progression of skills until the body has adjusted and be especially noticeable in sports that require good balance and body control such as figure skating, diving, gymnastics, and basketball. Don’t overlook the fact that longer arms and legs can affect throwing any type of ball, hitting with a bat or racquet, catching with a glove or lacrosse stick, swimming strokes, and jumping hurdles. The key point to remember is that this is a temporary stage of development. Key word—temporary. Repeat. Temporary. Did you get it?

Rest assured: this is temporary

Parents have had mental meltdowns when their basketball prodigy grows 8 inches in one year and starts stumbling over his own feet. Parents, coaches, and athletes who understand this process, know it is temporary, and show or receive lots of support enable the young athlete to come out on the other side with a successful result. The goal in this situation is to help prevent a negative reaction to a normal developmental process! Face it—if your child has talent before puberty, that talent should not disappear with a change in stature.

Paul R. Stricker, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
Sports Success Rx! Your Child’s Prescription for the Best Experience (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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