An emerging area of research into young children and sport that has been widely publicised recently, was informed by the work of a physiotherapist from Red Beach and overseen by Dr Simon Walters of Puhoi.
Physiotherapist Jody McGowan remembers the two Hibiscus Coast 12-year-olds whose injuries set her on a path of study into early specialisation in sport.
Both boys were recovering from reconstructive surgery on their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a key ligament that helps stabilise the knee.
It’s a serious sports injury that until recent years was unheard of in such young children.
Jody, who is a senior physiotherapist at Kinetics in Whangaparaoa, says 20 years ago it was unusual to see anyone under the age of 16 seeking physiotherapy for a sport-related issue.
She has noticed more and more, and now sees clients under the age of 12 with sports injuries.
“It blew my mind that those boys had such a serious injury,” Jody says. “That is not okay and it made me wonder what we’re doing wrong, why there are more of these injuries in young people – or were we just getting better at diagnosis?”
Jody’s recently completed Masters thesis on the topic provided ACC with its first New Zealand research as the organisation was itself looking for answers. ACC figures show that, since 2008, there has been a 60 percent increase in sports-related injuries in children aged 10-14. The volume of serious injuries in the same age bracket has also increased – for example, there were 69 ACL claims across seven sports last year, compared to less than five in 2008.
ACC head of Injury Prevention, Isaac Carlson, says it is highly unlikely that an increase of this magnitude, for an injury so debilitating, can be explained by increased participation in those sports.
Jody’s research included data from 914 children who took part in the 2017 AIMS Games, which features a wide range of sports.
It supported the idea that the more sport you do, the more injuries you’re likely to get, which may seem obvious.
However, Jody says it is the type of sport-related injuries in the very young that clinicians are seeing that is cause for concern – especially the increase in serious and overuse-type injuries.
“Things like severs disease, which is caused by repetitive stress to the heel has become common at many sports clubs as well as things such as serious hip injuries and overuse of shoulder tendons in swimmers,” Jody says. “The effects of intensive, organised sport on the growing body is a big concern.”
She says the effects of specialising in a particular sport from a young age were not clear from her study but showed that this issue needs more research in NZ.
What was clear was that time spent on ‘free play’ – unsupervised activities such as bike riding, tree climbing or kicking a ball around with friends – had a corresponding effect on reducing sports injuries.
“Unfortunately lots of the kids I spoke to weren’t doing much free play and there are many reasons for that,” Jody says.
Dr Simon Walters, senior lecturer at AUT’s school of sport and recreation, supervised the study with Associate Professor Chris Whatman. He says it is the first robust study of its kind in NZ, and sits under a broader programme of research that the Sports Performance Research Institute NZ at AUT is undertaking aimed at enhancing young people’s experiences of organised sport.
Jody says she is excited to see her work getting reported widely thanks to the efforts of ACC, who have studied its findings as they do their own work on the topic.
Her research will also inform the discussions Jody has with parents about their children’s injuries.
“Ninety-nine percent of parents are very receptive to thinking about how much activity their child is involved in,” she says. “At the same time, the pressure is there to keep going in that rep team, and not put the brakes on something active that the child is enjoying.”
ACC’S Isaac Carlson says the key message is that kids should keep playing sport.
“Sport is good but we’re keen for parents to check out the suggested guidelines so their kids are getting plenty of exercise each week, but not too much.”
The guidelines suggest a maximum of the same number of hours of structured sport or training, per week, as the child’s age (eg 10 hours per week for a 10-year-old).
“This is based on what the science is showing us at the moment,” Isaac says. “It is an emerging area but as the statement offers practical recommendations, it seems pertinent to get adults who are involved in kids’ sport to be thinking about this.”
Info: The guidelines for children’s sport are at www.acc.co.nz (Newsroom section)