Kiwi sporting organisations are pushing against early specialisation in sport, following an alarming rise in overuse injuries and a drop in participation due to burnout. Cheree Kinnear investigates the effects of high-performance sport on youth and tackles the question - how young is too young?
There's a global trend towards young people specialising in a sport at an earlier age, due to the belief it leads to an increased chance of sporting success later in life.
A 2018 study, presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, found 54.7 per cent of parents encouraged their children to specialise in a single sport.
Early sports specialisation was found to occur in children under the age of 12, with only 13.4 per cent of children balancing their multiple sports equally.
Parents' unrealistic expectations for their children to play professionally was concluded as putting indirect pressure on children to specialise.
It has lead to athletes assuming the younger they commit, the sooner they can secure it as a career.
However, early specialisation is contributing to burnout, loss of motivation and potential mental health issues in later life.
Sport New Zealand's approach promotes the pathway of remaining diverse at a young age.
They champion success stories such as former Black Sticks veteran Gemma McCaw and White Ferns star Sophie Devine, who both floated between codes before taking their eventually chosen sports more seriously.
Meanwhile, Silver Ferns shooter Maia Wilson had represented New Zealand in basketball before taking a full-time contract to play in the ANZ Premiership and pursuing a career in netball after high school.
Kiwi UFC champion Israel Adesanya was 21 when he began training MMA under Eugene Bareman. He was 30 when he became the undisputed UFC middleweight champion.
Auckland University of Technology's head of coaching, health and physical education Simon Walters says the majority of successful athletes specialise later in life, but a focus on the child prodigy narrative has made it seem otherwise.
"The most damaging research that's come about in the last 20 years is this notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make an elite performer, Walters said. "It's true that 10,000 hours can result in an elite sports performance and we think of people like Tiger Woods, Lydia Ko and the Williams sisters in tennis, but for 99.9 per cent of kids who have gone through a highly intense childhood of gymnastics or tennis or golf, they don't make it and the chance of getting an overuse injury or burning out is far higher than actually becoming an elite performer.
"Diversity and getting kids to play lots of sport when they're young is a proven pathway to elite performance and if they're allowed to specialise later when they're ready, that is also a proven pathway to success."
Youth athlete performance coach and researcher Dr Craig Harrison agrees early specialisation can be detrimental but believes there is a need for more education around youth-level high-performance sport.
He says there's no evidence that suggests resistance training stunts children's growth, delays puberty and that youth athletes are at a higher risk of injury.
"I think there's some confusion around the messages of 'don't do too much and you'll be fine' so there's probably a push towards more participation over performance. So for the performance side of things, there's a need for making sure the messages are clear around happy and healthy development," he says.
"It's okay for kids to pursue improvements for getting better and striving for success but what I'm not an advocate for is environments that place all of the emphasis on the outcome.
"There is a need to provide a little bit more tangible information and tools for people to use to manage some of these risks if there's a real passion and interest to pursue their sport."
There's been a 60 per cent surge in sports-related injuries between 2008 and 2019 for children aged 10-14, with soft-tissue injuries the most common year-on-year.
On average, children turning 10 this year have already registered 1.06 sports-related claims.
This year alone, 71,706 sports-related injuries have been reported for 10-18-year-olds, even with the reduction in sport being played due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Statistics like these are why ACC and Sport New Zealand are pushing for a balance of weekly sporting activity for kids.
ACC's injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker says the rise in intensity of youth sport is of most concern.
"It's important to acknowledge that injury is an inherent part of sport, but some kids, that level of intensity, particularly as they're going through adolescence and puberty and they've got developing bodies, they can be a little bit more vulnerable to injury," she says.
"There's greater opportunity now for kids to play sport in a more structured way, there are opportunities to do more training, more competition, so we're trying to understand more about that as a factor to preventing more injuries."
In 2016, Sport NZ developed a Talent Plan which aimed to "better prepare athletes for high performance through quality sporting experiences in the development phase".
Based on research around injury data, participation figures, and consultations with former athletes and national sporting bodies, the Talent Plan raised three issues that they believed impacted children from being able to enjoy sport long-term.
1) Childhood success is not a reliable predictor of future success.
2) Identifying athletes early and specialising early is taking its toll on young people.
3) A focus on winning rather than development is a problem for young people because it can have unintended consequences on their wellbeing and affect their motivation to take part.
As a result, the Balance is Better campaign was launched, which aims to continue the focus on participation and development and push away from early specialisation.
Sport NZ sport development national consultant Alex Chiet says they want kids to get a quality experience in sport that will better set up young athletes for the high-performance environment later in life.
"People start to treat young people like professional athletes when they haven't got the coping skills, they're not developed enough, they're physically not ready for the demands - and the impact can be really dire from a physical and mental wellbeing perspective," Chiet says.
"There's evidence everywhere but it's what people choose to see and listen to. There's always going to be stories about athletes who have specialised and have made it to the top but I stress it's the minority of cases, not the majority."
Last year, the country's five biggest sporting codes vowed to be less competitive and more fun as they try to tackle a growing number of teens dropping out.
In alignment with the Balance is Better campaign, New Zealand Cricket, New Zealand Football, Hockey New Zealand, Netball New Zealand and New Zealand Rugby signed a statement of intent to make major changes to the way kids play sport so it is more inclusive and not just focused on the winners.
Chiet says it's received some criticism for taking the competitive element of sport out of the equation.
Chiet, however, insists that's a misinterpretation, and says the initiative still caters to those who choose to take their sport more seriously at a young age by educating them on the importance of balance and the dangers of burnout.
"People often think it's a dumbing down of sport, a watering down and this is a negative thing - but no, it's very much a winning strategy for participation and performance and that's right at the heart of it.
"We know that kids shouldn't be doing too much too soon, especially around the adolescent age when they're going through the most development physically and emotionally, and suddenly there's these sporting pressures coming on them, you've got to let them be kids a little bit longer.
"There's always a couple of kids who want to be a professional athlete ... you don't want to stiffen that competitive drive but what you want to do is keep it in check. Part of your challenge is actually helping them to do other things, helping them understand the evidence and showing them that having a break is a good thing."
The importance of finding a sweet spot is also shown in mental health research. Too much sport can be detrimental but not enough can be just as dangerous.
A 2017 study done by Dr Sarah Beable found that one in five New Zealand elite athletes fit the criteria for depression, with one of the high-risk age ranges being in younger age groups. Injury was also identified as a high-risk factor contributing to depression in young athletes.
Sport NZ research, however, shows that Kiwis who meet the global physical activity recommendations of at least 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity a week are 51 per cent more likely to have healthy mental wellbeing.
Mental performance coach David Niethe, who worked with Lydia Ko during her younger years, believes competitive sport can hugely benefit young people's minds.
He says, while balance is good, there still needs to be a space for those who want to take sport seriously.
"When kids do a variety of sports, it stimulates neuro-pathways that actually help them to develop more efficient pathways for physical performance and mental performance.
"[But] at the end of the day it's also about developing strong men and women with strong self-images who are resilient in life, can deal with failure but are focused on the positives and can reframe things to serve them.
"We have a certain level of responsibility to help them understand that failure is a very important part of life, pain is a very important part of life, and if we cotton wool this too much I think we do a disservice to the kids themselves."
Niethe wants to see parents, coaches and sporting bodies nurture those who choose to take sport more seriously at a younger age.
"[Balance] is fantastic for probably 90 per cent of the population, however, you're going to get that small percentage of some individuals, and a prime example would be Lydia Ko, who at a very young age totally was obsessed with golf," he says.
"You have to appreciate that some of these kids if they demonstrate a certain level of passion, if they demonstrate a certain level of ability, that needs to be nurtured."
There may never be a perfect blanket approach to youth sport.
Balance may indeed suit the majority but there's undoubted recognition for those who seek the top level of sport at a young age.
Harrison believes it's a matter of environment and ensuring children have the right support for whichever pathway they choose.
He says understanding where the motivation comes from is the first step while working towards a system that caters for the exceptions like Ko, youth Olympians and child prodigies.
"We need to be really careful on their motivations and where that's coming from, then we need some more specific guidelines around the types of things that will help them to manage that growth - and the changes that they're going to experience to keep them happy and healthy."