Developing the young athlete research panel

Is weightlifting and other resistance training dangerous for my son? Is my daughter’s gymnastics causing the delay in the onset of her puberty?Why is it so expensive for us to participate in community sport? Are the logistical and emotional hassles of being a “sport family” worth the time and trouble?Parents whose children are enrolled in sports activities – from Little League to elite level – ask a lot of questions as they and their families get deeper into their sport.A group of Brock University researchers have been studying the answers. They presented their findings and experiences at a panel celebrating Ontario Research Week in early April.Resistance is not futileBareket Falk, a pediatric exercise physiologist who researches the impact of exercise on children’s bodies, says there’s a common misconception that resistance training stunts their growth.“During the Olympics, we see sports such as wrestling or weightlifting,” she told the audience. “Usually those guys on the podium, especially the gold metal winners, are relatively short; people say it’s because they’re doing all this lifting.”Falk explained that, during exercise, muscles actually release growth hormones while glands in the brain discharge growth-related hormones. The “shortness” of weightlifters is an advantage in the sport rather than the result of training in that sport, she says.Falk also warned people not to draw conclusions from “anecdotal” reports regarding injuries arising out of resistance training but to look at “prospective studies” that follow a group of healthy children and adolescent athletes, and assess their injury rate over time compared to a group of healthy adults training in the same intensity.“If you do that, you’ll see that the incidence of injury in children and adolescence is lower than it is in adults,” she explained. “Resistance training, if performed properly, is safer than most other sports.”A later leap into pubertyKinesiologist Nota Klentrou also notes that many female gymnasts are relatively short compared to other girls or young women their age. And, unlike their male counterparts, they reach puberty at around 14 years of age, much later than usual. However, this isn’t the case with rhythmic gymnasts, who are much taller.Again, like in Falk’s research, “I do think – and I dare to say – it is mostly selection,” Klentrou told the audience.“Actually, this is the case in a lot more than just gymnastics,” she said. “I have to say that, in almost 90 per cent of sports, having a male type of body in a little girl is advantageous, because they are lighter and have lower body fat.”The likely cause of delayed puberty is under-nutrition, where the young athlete expends more energy than they take in from food, leading to an energy imbalance, she said.Klentrou explained that, since the primary female sex hormone estrogen plays a role in bone development, there is concern that late puberty prevents estrogen levels from being high enough to develop bones properly.But she said high-impact exercises, such as jumping, provides “mechanical loading,” a process in which body movement stimulates cells called osteoblasts deep within bones to form bone.“So, do young female athletes compensate for a lack of estrogen? Absolutely they compensate, and even more,” she told the audience. However, repeated injuries combined with under-nutrition may lead to chronic health issues if not addressed.Have money, will play but at what cost?Researchers on the panel, held in St. Catharines April 2, also explored the financial and social implications of how community sports are set up.PhD candidate Paul Jurbala, who is also CEO of the sport consulting business communityactive and volunteer chair of a non-profit called Community Sport Councils Ontario, quoted a 2004 national survey in which 58 per cent of youth and 18 per cent of adult volunteers participate in community sport in Canada.“Collectively, this is the biggest place outside school where kids are instructed by adults,” he said. “And those adults, in this case, are volunteers for the most part.”Despite the importance of community sport being a “key part of Canadian identity,” most of the more than 30,000 sport organizations in the country have no staff, have difficulty finding and retaining volunteers, and are funded only by membership fees.As a result, it’s becoming more expensive for families to participate in clubs, especially in the face of “fairly stagnant middle class incomes,” said Jurbala.He gave the example of a 2012 Hockey Canada survey, which found that the average family was paying $3,000 to $3,700 per child, depending on age, to play hockey through a club.And other costs – physical, emotional and relational – need to be taken into consideration, says Dawn Trussell, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies.“Anyone in sports knows that when a child signs up, the family signs up,” she told the gathering. “My research is focused on what’s happening in the car, at the dining room table. All of these things, in turn, actually impact what happens on the field.”There can be a lot of time pressures put on the family – with many mothers clocking up to 20 hours a week for their children’s sports – which may cause stress in the parents’ relationship, especially in dual-income households, she said.Also, if parents are coaches and children are on the team, the result could be rebellious behaviour from the children and greater pressure or higher expectations on children’s performance. Athletic siblings, whether in the same or different sport, could be jealous of one another and engage in sibling rivalries, Trussell said.But Trussell outlined a host of positive impact on sport families. These include: family members spending quality time with one another; the opportunity to facilitate the children’s physical and social development; older siblings taking on a “mentoring” role; sport families creating a sense of community; and a model of “giving back” to society.

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