Sport can foster healthier, smarter children and teach them to respect authority. But pushing young, growing bodies to their limit can have detrimental effects, warns an expert. Jo Wadham reports As the schools go back and the new sporting seasons begin, many parents are signing up their children for after-school sports clubs, hoping to fight the lure of screen-based pastimes. By engaging in organised sports or activities, rather than just climbing trees or kicking a ball around in the park, children move away from unstructured free play and into structured regimens. But how do you ensure they are properly equipped, mentally and physically, for the rigours of sport? And how much exercise is too much for a young developing body?
Beverley Strathearn, a chartered physiotherapist with the Orthosports Medical Centre in Dubai, says the key thing for parents to remember is to try not to get specialised too soon. "The child may be a promising swimmer, but keep a rounded training programme. Try to get the child to experience a wide range of activities to aid their overall development. If they do the same activity all the time, the muscle tissue can get over-strained."
While adults seeking to get fit will tell themselves "no pain, no gain", the same does not apply to children. "If a child regularly experiences pain during sport, this needs investigating as it is not normal," Strathearn says. "It may be the technique, the level of intensity or the sporting equipment, among other factors, that are at fault." A child stretching their leg muscles by doing the splits in a gym class may feel a level of discomfort. "But if they are suffering pain beyond the class and into the next day, the intensity level is too high," says Strathearn. "There may be some discomfort or muscle soreness, but if the pain is persistent and continues, it should be assessed by a physiotherapist or doctor."
The benefits of exercise for children are well established. Regular physical activity during teenage years in particular is vital for future health, as Strathearn is keen to emphasise. "The first two years of puberty is a crucial time for bones to be laid down. Research shows that three sessions a week of 12 to 15 minutes of jumping up and down, like skipping, can increase bone mass by between 20 to 40 per cent. The bone mass that we lay down in puberty lasts the rest of our lives."
The mistake, she says, is to view children's bodies as adult bodies in miniature. "Children's skeletal systems are significantly different to adults. Their bones are more elastic and there are growth plates at the ends of each bone. Twisting injuries can result in problems at the growth plates. Also, tendon attachments are relatively weak compared to an adult and this can lead to avulsion injuries, where the tendon actually pulls away from the bone, and bone strains such as Osgood Schlatters disease, a condition common in teenagers that causes pain and swelling just below the knee."
At the Abu Dhabi Harlequins Rugby Club at Zayed Sports City, which coaches up to 500 junior members, ranging from the under fives to under 18s, physical safety and the prevention of injury are given top priority. As the ADHRC Chairman, Rory Greene explains that the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union has laid down very specific training "pathways" or "continuums" for training different age groups, which the ADHRC follows.
For example, there is no contact tackling under the age of eight, when it is carefully introduced, and no kicking of the ball until the under 11s, with children only gradually working up to play on a full-size pitch and in scrums. "Every year the International Rugby Board looks at rugby and safety," says Greene. "Like any contact sport, there is a risk of injury, but this risk is very much reduced with good coaching, good fitness, good technique and provided the rules and regulations are followed. Rugby is a very safe sport when it is done correctly and coached correctly and teaches children lessons above and beyond the rules of the game," he adds. "It really is a sport that teaches them about sportsmanship. They learn respect for the opposition, respect for the referee, respect for the coaches, respect for the rules. It's a very physical, tough game but it instils everything that you want young sports people to have."
It is also, he says, an inclusive sport, in which physical competence isn't an issue. "We're not worried how small, tall, thin, fat, fast or slow you are. There is always somewhere on a rugby pitch an individual can play." Inclusiveness is important when encouraging your child to participate in sport. Not every child is either sporty or "wired to win", and for some the experience of losing, or the sense that they are being pushed too hard, can help their interest in sport subside.
At the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, competitive sports are not introduced until middle school (from 11 to 15 years old), when children are more emotionally mature. "For the under-14s, a more competitive stream is brought in, but we also provide a recreational outlet for kids who aren't wired that way for competitive sports," says Kevin Brawn, the school's athletics director. He explains that the children there are taught both competitive athletics and non-competitive physical education side by side and says that without such measures, "those who aren't interested in competitive sports could end up going to the malls instead".
Sport teachers and professionals such as Brawn are also trained to identify those children who can succumb to anxiety and stress as a consequence of competing at a high level or satisfying parental expectations. Parents whose children show a real flair for a particular sport are often keen to develop their skills with a specialist coach and in those cases, Brawn says: "We ask them, 'What is the level of the coach? What's the philosophy of the coach or the programme?' and see if it is safe for them physically and emotionally."
But with a properly qualified coach with an awareness of the different needs and limitations of children, plus child-appropriate training schedules and equipment, an organised sports club is a great way to get your child exercising. And even if your child is not the next Rafael Nadal, getting them to run around, skip, or throw a ball can set them on the right path for adult life, helping them to develop physical, mental and social skills. Evidence suggests that children who participate in sport experience improvements academically too, as Brawn points out. "Getting active feeds the brain with more oxygen. It helps kids focus and concentrate. Kids that are active are much more focused."