Impacts of Physical and Emotional Growing Pains in Developing Athletes
By: Melissa Lambert
The trend of youth sports has pushed for specialization with a desired outcome of better athletes. Specialization refers to focusing on one sport with the hopes of excelling in it. However, with a lack of rest, young athletes are more at risk for overuse injuries. Physical and emotional development is critical as a child’s body will face numerous changes into adolescents. Children who are particularly active may also experience what is known as growing pains which occur in about 25% to 40% of children between the ages of 3 to 12 years old. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms to avoid further risk of injury. Growing pains focus on the muscles and many kids tend to feel pain at night when their body has relaxed. Common places to feel pain are thighs, calves and behind the knees. Physical activity such as jumping, climbing and running tend to add to the aches children experience.
Parents can help ease the pain by massaging, use of a heating pad and stretching. If the child frequently experiences pain at night it may help to engage the child in stretching before bed. We all know children don’t find stretching to be exciting, but adding creativity to it by use of yoga poses and music may help a child maintain a regular routine before bed. Although growing pains will eventually go away, it’s important that parents and coaches don’t push children through the pain. Overuse injuries can often be misinterpreted for a growth spurt with a “no pain, no gain” mentality. This should never be the attitude taken when parenting or coaching youth. Worrisome symptoms that may indicate something more serious include persistent pain, swelling, tenderness and redness in a joint, limping, weakness, stiffness, exhaustion or fever possibly associated with an infection. There is also a lot of pressure felt by young athletes from parents and coaches to succeed making it crucial to pay attention to details. Constant complaints of pain, excuse making, not feeling well and irritability may also be signs that the child doesn’t want to engage in the activity, lacks self-confidence or is burnt out. Children and adolescents will develop behaviors to meet their own needs or avoid an undesirable situation. We do the same as adults when we come across situations that are uncomfortable.
Another significant aspect in assessing growing pains is the number activities a child is involved in. It can be argued that the pressures from school and competitive sports present excessive levels of stress resulting in burnout. Make sure there is time for rest and free play to alleviate the work load. Running from one practice to the next practice may inhibit performance and increase the likelihood for aches and pain. There should be adequate time off between seasons and a variation in sport. Children should never be allowed to play one sport year round. In addition proper training and conditioning must occur before, during and after a practice or event in order to prevent overuse injuries. Warm-ups should be taken seriously by coaches and consist of foam rolling (use a ball to substitute if needed) for tissue quality, mobility including dynamic stretches and coordination exercises. Progressions of training loads should be gradual to allow young athletes to adjust and coaches can incorporate change-of-pace activities into practices such as ultimate Frisbee and obstacle courses. There are numerous teachable moments while allowing opportunities for play.
Parents and coaches will more likely recognize physical pain associated with growth spurts and injuries while neglecting the emotional components. Children can appear awkward through various stages of development resulting from adjusting to physical changes during growth. They also may be delayed in motor skill development and take time to catch up with the rest of the kids in their age group. Most children are motivated to participate in sports to have fun, learn new skills, hang out with friends, exercise and build self-esteem. It is never one specific reason why a child participates and a majority will quit sports by the time they reach thirteen.
There are several goals parents and coaches should consider in the physical and emotional development of young athletes.
1.) Use Positive Self-talk.
When addressing any concern with a child it is important to have self-awareness about your own emotions and beliefs. Positive thoughts illicit positive feelings allowing the focus to be on what the child is presently feeling. If a child is struggling in a sport, take the time to think about all the reasons why before having a discussion about it. For example, you might think about how the child has been complaining of pain or hasn’t been sleeping, but still continues to give effort. Never react on emotion and explore multiple scenarios that could be occurring before addressing any issue.
2.) Be strength based and drop expectations.
As adults it is essential to avoid criticisms and targeting weaknesses. Children are intuitive and recognize areas that need further development. Use of negative language and limited focus on what is going well will continue to inhibit athletic performance. Criticism is not a motivator and most likely children will bring up their own struggles in conversation when they feel supported. In addition, they may feel the need to push through pain and exhaustion in order to meet adult expectations. Make sure to ask yourself if the goals and expectations set for the child are realistic at their current stage of development. Children who don’t feel adequate enough will be more likely to avoid the situation and lose interest.
3.) Recognize changes in behavior.
Be attentive to physical and emotional changes that occur whether there is risk for potential injury or change in mood. If there is an increase in irritability and agitation, address these as warning signs for a more serious issue. With a fast paced life and participation in multiple activities it is easy to miss changes. Parents are encouraged to check-in with their children using statements such as. “I noticed you have been more frustrated lately, would you like to talk about it?” or “I’m concerned that the pain your feelings is getting worse, what do you think we should do about it?” These statements provide the child to have some control and are more inviting to engage in a conversation versus the child feeling attacked.
Adults are all guilty of this because we spend so much time running from place to place and tend to love to hear ourselves talk. Ask yourself if you are present in the moment when your child is speaking to you. Are you making eye contact, within close proximity, listening without talking over them or walking away in the middle of them talking to you. Let children know that you are attentive to their needs by using understanding and reflective statements such as “It sounds like you are really frustrated with some of the kids on the team,” or “If someone called me a name I would feel upset too.” Actively listening lets children know that what they have to say is important resulting in a stronger relationship.
5.) Utilize teaching moments and encourage problem solving.
We are too quick to come up with solutions and do things for children rather than using incidents as teaching moments. If a child feels a coach made a decision that wasn’t fair, have the child talk through the incident about what the right thing to do is. Adults tend to jump to their rescue and miss key opportunities to let children explore and learn how to handle conflict on their own. Determine if the situation compromises safety and then explore both positive and negative consequences with the child to help their decision making process.
These five goals will help establish a trusting relationship in your ability to support a child through critical stages of development. This includes situations like growing pains, wanting to fit in with other kids or managing a personality conflict with a teammate. If there is any uncertainty in a child’s safety or is dealing with persistent pain that can’t be identified always check-in with a healthcare professional and ask questions during routine physicals. Most importantly more is not better in terms of the number of activities a child is involved in. A child’s needs must be assessed on an individual basis both physically and mentally without comparison to other children.
If you are looking for a step-by-step guide for coaching athletes to have greater confidence and more focus, check out Melissa's Athletic Mind Mastery Program.