May 23, 2018

How much activity is too much?

You know your family's schedules are busy — sports, school, after-school, music lessons, play dates. Sometimes it can feel as though quality family time involves driving between activities. And what about those kids who enjoy being active — playing soccer, hockey and lacrosse? Or maybe it's swimming, tennis and baseball? How much is too much?

Dave Knight, manager of UW Health's Sports Performance Program, offers a relatively simple formula based on a child's age and grade.

"We use chronological age to recommend how much activity kids should do in a week and grade to determine how many hours in a single activity," he says.

As an example, if a child is 10, then no more than 10 hours in a week should be spent in an organized activity — including practice and games. Since a 10-year-old is likely in fourth or fifth grade, no more than four or five hours should be spent in a single sport.

"It's really about preventing burn out and preventing injury" says Knight, and he acknowledges it's also important to know your child. "If you have a 10-year-old who is physically mature and in the fourth grade, you could push it toward five hours. But if she or he is on the younger side, then err toward the fewer amount of hours."

Knight explains that the younger a child is, the more unstructured free play there should be. But, he adds, that doesn't happen as much as it used to. Parents tend to sign kids up for organized sports when they're as young as 4 or 5, and then kids are guided by coaches for how to move and what skills they need to develop. But as a result, they're not developing a strong athletic foundation.

"Soccer players don't reach their highest skills until their 20s. But in organized soccer we're often pushing them to reach it in their early teens. We put so much emphasis on skills — ball skills, team skills, techniques — and we forget about the athletic skill."

As a parent of a teen athlete and a coach, Knight understands the pressure on kids to develop in their sports, but by putting so much pressure on kids, it prevents them from fully developing as players. That's why UW Health's Sports Performance programs are based on helping kids develop what Knight refers to as a "movement vocabulary."

"Kids are sponges — they absorb everything around them. And learning how to move is no different. If they're only learning limited patterns due to their sports, those movements will become ingrained," he says. "If you took a bunch of soccer players and put them on a field without a ball, chances are they will still run as though a ball is at their feet."

When emphasis is placed instead on movement skills, kids develop a "vocabulary" that they can draw from regardless of the activity or sport they perform. In so doing, they can actually perform better in their sport and reduce their risk of injury. But, in the end, Knight says, it's about helping kids learn to love being active. "We want kids to have the skills they need to flourish, no matter their sport or activity."