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Competitive Sports and Growing Bodies

By Kim Robson:

I grew up being an athlete. I started out young playing tennis, then later added roller skating. I’d stay all day at the roller rink, and skated all over our hilly neighborhood. Later, I fell in love with figure skating, and spent my early teens competing in events and performing in shows. My routine was crushing: I got up at 4:00 a.m. for lessons, went to school around 9:00 a.m. (I had a first-period P.E. exemption), returned to the rink after school, ate my dinner and did homework at the rink, and practiced until 10:00 p.m. I also cross-trained with ballet and jazz dance lessons. That was six days a week.

The author, age 12, at a skating competition

In high school, I was a sprinter on the varsity track & field team. In my twenties, I went hiking on many high-altitude mountain backpacking trips.

The author, age 22, Yosemite National Park

All of this had an effect on my growing frame. I developed a strong, muscular body for life. But there’s a flip side. As a figure skater, I experienced numerous falls, some quite serious. Once, I bruised my tailbone and had to sit sideways for two months. Another fall resulted in a huge bruise on my knee that made squishing sounds when poked and turned every color of the rainbow as it dissipated. There is a place on my right knee with permanent nerve damage from falling on the spot hundreds of times while mastering the sit spin. I developed lower back and knee issues. Because skates provide such great ankle protection, as a runner I later suffered from excruciating ankle pain after races, forcing me to wear ankle braces until eventually they got stronger on their own. My parents pressured me to quit, fearing I was doing permanent damage to myself.

With America’s obesity epidemic and so many kids living sedentary lives, getting your kids involved in youth sports is a great way to emphasize having fun while simultaneously tricking them into getting exercise, developing emotional well-being, and learning lifelong lessons that lead to healthy and active lifestyle habits that will last into their adulthood.

But with all good things must come balance and moderation. Participating in high-impact sports can increase bone mass density and help prevent future osteoporosis, but too much impact can be detrimental for young growing bones and joints. The younger the child, the more your focus should be on their having fun with noncompetitive low-impact activities. As the child reaches his/her later teens, higher impact competitive sports may be integrated. (I will address the growing concerns over youth football and head concussions in another article.) First, here are some pros and cons to youth sports:


  • Makes exercising fun
  • Promotes discipline and self-esteem
  • Builds muscle tone and motor skills
  • Teaches work ethic, time management, regular routines, adherence to rules
  • Encourages socialization with peers
  • Facilitates interaction with adult role models and positive mentors
  • Teaches teamwork, leadership skills, how to take criticism and direction
  • Burns off excess energy
  • Reduces anxiety and depression


  • Too much, too soon can interfere with growing bones and tendons
  • Anxiety and stress of competition can lead to burnout
  • Developmentally inappropriate demands can lead to feelings of frustration or failure
  • Self-worth can be tied to performance, especially where trophies and tournaments are involved
  • Coaches and other parents can be bullies; child may need to develop resilience and a thick skin
  • Unrealistic expectations re: sports scholarships, professional careers, Olympic dreams, etc.
  • Strained finances of parents

Parents, coaches, teams, sports psychologists and schools may put undue pressure on young athletes to perform. Remember, they’re just children, not professional athletes. Some days they might flub every single throw or kick just because; on other days they might look as if they’re destined for the Olympic Games. Help them maintain perspective and understand that it’s only a game, not the end of the world. Set a good example so your kids will see firsthand what graciousness and sportsmanship look like.

Bad example. Don’t be this parent

DO avoid allowing children under the age of twelve to participate in high-impact sports that involve intense or frequent wear or trauma to weight-bearing joints (feet, knees, hips, spine). These are sports such as football, baseball, basketball, tennis, handball, hockey, karate, racquetball, running, skiing, wrestling, soccer or gymnastics. Sixteen to eighteen is a more appropriate age to try these activities. The age chart below is for running, but applies well for all high-impact sports:

For children under the age of sixteen, DO encourage low-impact sports such as swimming, skating, diving, water polo, cycling, rowing or kayaking, horseback riding, tree climbing, yoga, strength training, aerobics, dance or tai chi.

For more information about the importance of youth sports, check out the NFL’s Play 60program or Michelle Obama’s Let’s Moveprogram.


Were you an athlete as a kid? How did it impact your life? Are your kids athletic? Let us know in the comments!

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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