You would be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn’t think that getting their children into sports is a good thing.
Which is fair enough really.
I mean, the sport has the potential to improve physical and mental health, enhance emotional wellbeing, and even improve social development. In this manner, many would consider it to be an integral part of growing up healthy.
But what if I told you that sports participation may actually delay the growth and development of your kids?
What do we mean by delayed growth and development?
As kids transition from an infant, into a child, and then into a teenager, they grow in size. This comes with increases in length throughout their entire body, increases in breadth, and increases in weight.
In short, they experience physical maturation.
Within this growth, we also see the improved development of certain skills and behaviors. This can include the development of social skills, intellectual and cognitive competence, emotional resilience, and moral capacity (Matina, 2011).
Finally, we also see the development of motor skills.
This is essentially dictated by a better ability to control their body through space. This is built around the development of more efficient movement quality and a better refinement of both gross and fine motor tasks.
Now, it is important to note that while there is indeed some variability in the rate at which children grow and mature, they typically see very similar relative improvements on a yearly basis.
So when we are talking about the delayed growth and development in childhood and adolescence, we are discussing a slower rate of maturation regarding these qualities.
Related Article: How Childhood Sports Success Affects Adulthood
Does intense sports training delay growth and development?
What if your kids are extremely talented? What if you think that they are going to be the next Lebron?
You want them to focus all their time on basketball, right? You want them to train hard, and train often, making sure that they will become the best athlete that they possibly can?
Well, maybe not.
See, while exposure to a number of different sports throughout childhood can actually improve motor skill development, this isn’t necessarily that case when it comes to picking one sport and focusing on it completely.
In fact, there is a growing body of evidence clearly demonstrating that specializing early can actually narrow the number and variety of motor skills that they develop. This can make them a less well-rounded athlete, which can severely limit their development in a number of different areas (Brown, 2017).
Additionally, the intense and grueling training associated with focusing on a specific sport can actually place your child in a heightened state of fatigue. This means that their energy expenditure will permanently be through the roof, which will leave less energy available for their physical development.
As a result, it has been hypothesized that early sport specialization, and the intense training that comes with it, can impact the growth, development, and maturation of your kids in a negative manner.
This is integral if you consider sports maturity in youth athletes from every aspect.
Is there an athlete difference between males and females?
Female maturity vs male maturity – is there a difference?
Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a significant difference between male and female athletes when it comes to intense activity impacting growth or development during early childhood.
But when it comes to their teenage years, we see a slightly different story…
It is well reported that many female children face certain social pressures as they transition into adolescence. These pressures tend to revolve around the perceived need to look a certain way, which can result in unhealthy dietary habits (Cleary, 2018).
This has the potential to lead to a significantly altered energy balance during periods of intense training, which can further impact growth and maturation negatively.
As a result, teenage female athletes may actually be more susceptible to experience delayed growth from intense training than teenage male athletes.
Does delayed maturation depend on the sport?
This is where some things get a little bit interesting.
I have already outlined how the main driver for delayed growth and development isn’t so much intensive training, but rather the chronic energy deficit that comes with it.
Now some sports actually lend themselves to smaller body sizes being attributed to better performance. It is also these sports that traditionally have extremely high training loads.
In turn, this can unwittingly contribute to a greater daily energy deficit, and may also lend itself to your child eating less deliberately to maintain a sport-specific body shape (Kapczuk, 2017).
This essentially creates a perfect storm for delayed development and maturation.
Those sports that seem to cause the most issues to include:
- Long distance running
- Long distance swimming
So if you have ever wondered do ‘’gymnastics mature slower?’’, then you have your answer.
With this in mind, if your kids are participating in any of these sports, make sure that you monitor their training loads closely, and ensure that they are eating enough to maintain their training levels.
Eating disorders in children athletes and maturity
While we are discussing growth and development, it would be negligent not to touch on eating disorders and young athletes (Campbell, 2014; de Oliveira, 2014; Pustivšek, 2015).
Eating disorders are becoming increasingly relevant in today’s teen athlete population. Driven by a unique and dangerous combination of both performance and body composition needs, weighing less is often viewed as a simplistic way of looking and competing better.
And it is not a good thing.
Individuals – both male and female – who develop an eating disorder actively cause huge reductions in their energy intake. As I am sure you can imagine, this has the potential to further contribute to inhibited growth and development.
In fact, research has clearly shown that not only can it increase the risk of delayed physical growth, but it also leads to severe pubertal delay – which can have a host of other negative effects on both physical and mental health in the long run.
Related Article: Do Children Perform Better In Sports Based On Coach’s Gender?
Does puberty affect athletic performance?
So, puberty and sports performance – does it help, or does it hinder?
Well, as you may have expected, it seems to help (Tønnessen, 2015).
During puberty, your child will undergo a steep increase in growth. This means the development of bone and muscle tissue, and the maturation of the nervous system. This actually improves their capacity for strength, power, and motor skill development, which is obviously integral to sport success.
In fact, a recent research paper looked at puberty and running speed and found that adolescent athletes see the greatest yearly improvements in performance from the ages of 12 to 14.
As a result, during periods of pubertal growth, athletic performance spikes significantly.
While not unexpected, it is pretty cool to know with certainty.
Best tips for parents and coaches
Taking all of this into consideration, as parents and coaches, it is your responsibility to ensure that your kids experience normal growth and development. This comes down to your ability to ensure that they are not overtraining, that they are eating well, and that they are in good mental health.
In my mind, this can be done by implementing the following tips:
- Do not sport specialize early: expose them to a number of different sports as they grow up. This could mean playing different every season. Additionally, make sure you measure their success by their improvement, rather than their wins.
- Manage training loads closely: if your kids are exhausted all the time, then their training time is too high. They should have 2-3 formalized training sessions per week at most, all other physical activity should be built around play.
- Ensure healthy eating habits: teach your children the importance of fuelling their body with food, and role model healthy eating patterns daily.
- Manage their mental health: constantly reinforce that your child’s appearance is not what dictates their self-worth. Treat them well, and encourage them to discuss their fears openly.
While this is a far cry from the most thorough list in the world, I truly feel that if you can manage each of these tips effectively, then you will go a very long way to maximizing your kid’s health, growth, and maturation – which is the most important thing.
Take Home Message
While sports participation is indeed a good thing, the intense participation associated with early sport specialization is not. And when you combine this with high training loads and potential disruption in eating patterns, you have a recipe for disaster.
So make sure you are doing everything in your power to keep your kids healthy, and their sports varied.
Not only will they see better improvement in their athletic capabilities in the long run, but they will also see a marked improvement in health as a result – so what are you waiting for?
Matina, R. M., and A. D. Rogol. “Sports training and the growth and pubertal maturation of young athletes.” Pediatric endocrinology reviews: PER 9.1 (2011): 441-455.
Brown, Kelly A., Dilip R. Patel, and Daphne Darmawan. “Participation in sports in relation to adolescent growth and development.” Translational pediatrics 6.3 (2017): 150.
Cleary, Shannon, Victoria Chi, and Ronald Feinstein. “Female athletes: managing risk and maximizing benefit.” Current opinion in pediatrics 30.6 (2018): 874-882.
Kapczuk, Karina. “Elite athletes and pubertal delay.” Minerva pediatrica 69.5 (2017): 415-426.
Campbell, Kenisha, and Rebecka Peebles. “Eating disorders in children and adolescents: state of the art review.” Pediatrics 134.3 (2014): 582-592.
Pustivšek, Suzana, Vedran Hadžić, and Edvin Dervišević. “Risk Factors for Eating Disorders Among Male Adolescent Athletes/Dejavniki Tveganja Motenj Hranjenja Med Športniki V Adolescenci.” Slovenian Journal of Public Health 54.1 (2015): 58-65.
de Oliveira Coelho, Gabriela Morgado, et al. “Prevention of eating disorders in female athletes.” Open access journal of sports medicine 5 (2014): 105.
Tønnessen, Espen, et al. “Performance development in adolescent track and field athletes according to age, sex and sport discipline.” PloS one 10.6 (2015): e0129014.