Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: Are Youth Sports Coaches Really Aware of Guidelines? (Sports Med Res)


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Are Youth Sports Coaches Really Aware of Guidelines?

Knowledge, Attitudes, and Beliefs of Youth Sports Coaches Regarding Sport Volume Recommendations and Sport Specialization

Post EG, Trigsted SM, Schaefer DA, Cadmus-Bertram LA, Watson AM, McGuine TA, Brooks MA, Bell DR. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Feb 22. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002529. [Epub ahead of print]

Take Home Message: Coaches may be unaware of current recommendations about training volume and sports specialization but express concerns about sport specialization.

Sports specialization is increasingly common despite a lack of evidence that it leads to success and is linked to increased injury risk, particularly overuse injury. Several professional organizations including the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and American Medical Society for Sports Medicine have released position statements to caution against early sports specialization. While coaches profoundly impact an athlete’s decision to specialize and train, we know little about their knowledge and beliefs regarding sport specialization and training volume. Hence, the authors sought to determine the knowledge of youth sport coaches regarding sport volumes and to assess the attitudes or thoughts regarding youth sport specialization. The authors invited school and club youth sport coaches via email to complete a web-based questionnaire. Eligible coaches worked as a head or assistant coach with athletes 12 to 18 years of age in the previous 12 months. The survey instrument was not previously validated but was created using sound theory, vetted, and tested prior to the study. Overall, 253 coaches (207 males) completed the survey. The majority (69%) of coaches coached school-based teams. Most (80%) respondents were unaware of recommendations regarding the number of hours per week or months per year of participation and only 11% reported that they were aware of both recommendations. The coaches agreed that participation in multiple leagues in the same sport at the same time was inappropriate but 58% did not see a problem with participation in simultaneous leagues of different sports. Less than half of the coaches were either very or extremely concerned about the risk of injury in youth sports. Two out of three coaches indicated that year-round sports participation was very or extremely likely to increase risk of injury. Almost all (94%) coaches agreed that participation in multiple sports increases athletic ability quite a bit or a great deal.

This study is the first to examine the knowledge and beliefs of youth sports coaches on sports specialization and provides a great deal of information that can be used to develop educational programs and initiatives in youth sports. The figure that draws the most attention is the fact that 80% of youth coaches are unaware of recommendations regarding the number of months per year or hours per week that athletes should be participating. While it may be difficult for coaches to track specific hours that athletes participate in organized sport on other teams, they should at least be aware of the recommendation: athletes should not participate more hours per week than their age. (i.e. a 12-year old should not participate more than 12 hours per week).  Even though coaches in this survey were largely unaware of the recommendations, they agreed that sports specialization is a problem, expressed concerned about the risk of injury, and the increased risk associated with year-round participation. The results of this study identify a need for improved youth sport education programs. Models such as concussion education may be used to improve the knowledge and awareness of youth sport coaches. Youth sport coaches are often serving in volunteer capacities and while it is important for them to have basic knowledge in many areas (concussion, sudden cardiac arrest, sport specific guidelines, etc.), it would be beneficial for them if we had a uniform way to deliver educational directives to them to help alleviate the burden placed on them.

Questions and Discussion: How do we best ensure that appropriate guidelines are being distributed to youth sport coaches? Should there be different educational focus for school based and club-based coaches regarding sports specialization and participation volumes?

Written by: Adam Lake
Reviewed by: Jeffrey Driban

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Dana said...

Thanks for sharing Adam. Something that may assist with curbing sport specialization for youth sports would be standardized credentials for those who coach. I know US Soccer has been working on streamlining their education to coaches so that as youth athletes progress with the sport they are being provided the same teaching objectives. A few years ago I attended a course in pursuit of receiving a D-level coaching license through US Soccer. I recall sport volume was touched upon during the course with the purpose being to have the coaches consider how too much soccer could be detrimental for the athletes. I’m most surprised that so many coaches from this study were not aware though of an appropriate volume for youth athletes. Working on having coaching standards may help with this yet it may be a long while before this becomes an accepted standard for youth coaches to abide by.

Adam Lake said...

Dana, thanks for the comment and sharing your experiences. I think a standardization for credential would be beneficial. The difficulty with standardization is the increase burden this will present to coaches that may be volunteering their time. You mention US Soccer as an example, I know USA basketball and other individual sport organizations are putting forth efforts to educate coaches, athletes, and parents about specialization and volume recommendations. The other difficulty is that even if organizations such as these adopt standard strategies there will continue to be youth sports programs that are not members and therefore would not be held to these standards.

Kyle Morris said...

Hi Adam,

Thanks for sharing this article. Sport specialization is something that I am very interested in. Based on the results, I think progress is being made, and steps are heading in the right direction in terms of coaches holding the notion that sport specialization can be detrimental to adolescent athletes, however I'm still frustrated that these coaches are unaware of the current recommendations. I feel that coach education is vital, but is it enough? I'm just curious as to what other options you feel are viable. Thanks for the review!

Sarah said...

Hi Adam,

Great review! I think the idea of sports specialization is very interesting and up and coming. Although the recommendations about sports specialization is very important for coaches to have knowledge of, I think it is difficult to enforce through coaches. It is a very difficult topic to comprehend for anyone, but I feel like parents or sports organizations are whom we need to focus our education on. Overall, parents are more likely to know how much activity the children are going to doing and coaches are not likely to adhere to these guidelines unless there is a sports organization enforcing them. I think youth baseball is a place where you can see the sports specialization has been adequately warned against. The challenge now is to spread it to other organizations.

maggie lynch said...

Thanks for sharing, Adam! It is interesting that sport specialization is such a growing problem, even though a large portion of the coaches in this article believed that participating in multiple leagues of the same sport at the same time is inappropriate. I believe education is a vital key to decrease the rate of sport specialization as a whole, as well as injuries that spur from it. It's one thing for coaches to believe that sport specialization is bad, but it is another for them to actually understand the recommended amount of activity for their athletes. I think standardized education would be a beneficial way to help coaches and parents understand what sport specialization is, and how to prevent the harms that come from it.

Adrienne said...

Hi Adam, thank you for sharing. I agree with the other comments that some form of education of specialization for coaches would be beneficial, although I do understand how it would be difficult, especially with volunteer coaches. I think parental involvement is extremely important for youth sport specialization because they are more familiar with the volume of activity their child is doing. Parents are often required to come in for a pre-season educational conference in the youth setting, so it may be beneficial to add a specialization piece to that. I think there is a generalized thought that “more is better” but it is important for coaches and parents in the youth setting that this is not always the case. Having a child specialize in a sport and possibly become overworked can cause more harm on their future in their sport than good. I think we need more research to determine at what age sport specialization is still too early, and what type and volume of activity is acceptable at each age. Then I think we can work towards getting coaches on board.

Adam Lake said...

In an effort to address several of the previous comments educating coaches is no small task and an effort to include parental education is also a big part of the equation. These efforts and materials would need to be tailored to each group. I do think incorporating these educational efforts into other requirements may be a viable option similar to those of concussion awareness. I know that I have had to provide documentation of completion of concussion education to volunteer as a coach even at the T-ball level. There have been several studies that have shown an increased risk of injury associated with specialization and also no link to success- whereas the majority of athletes at the Olympic, NCAA division 1, and professional level played multiple sports in high school. However there appears to be an increase in specialization. We really have a few things going on here- 1 is that coaches may not be aware of participation guidelines, this is not OK and education needs to be increased. 2- Specialization does not seem to offer an athletic advantage and does come with increased risk of injury and this is the message that needs to be pushed to parents. The common thread to reach parents and coaches are the youth sports organizations that have the ability to engage both groups. There likely needs to be initiatives from each individual sports organization. Hopefully this addresses the majority of the points.

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