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The Burnout Mode

Sat, Dec. 23, 2017
Wake up extra early to catch the morning training, shower, go to school, eat lunch on the ride from school to the evening training, train some more, get shouted at by the coach for not doing enough, shower, do homework on the ride back home, fall asleep, and repeat. If the routine sounds familiar, it’s because this is a rather common day for today’s children.

Sports are great for a kid’s mental and physical development, they also improve social skills and help teach hard work,determination and perseverance but in moderation. Moderation, experts agree, is the keyword here.

Many parents interviewed expressed how sports benefitted their children. Dana Hashem’s daughter Layal, 10, learned about time management, punctuality and hard work through gymnastics, which she has been practicing for seven years now. “She became very efficient, she would brush her hair in the car, for instance, or even study on her way to practice,” Hashem explains. “She also learned to be independent.”

Engy Laz, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, explains that sports help increase self esteem and keep a child healthy, both physically and mentally, developing a purpose in life beyond homework. “Kids have big amounts of energy that need to be channeled properly,” Laz says. “But balance is key.”

But with today’s obsessiveness about having a child who’s best at everything school, friendship, looks and, of course, fitness many kids have become over scheduled, overworked and over pressured. “Now you’re always running around that you can’t enjoy your kids and they can’t enjoy your presence...it is a military camp and everything runs so quickly,” says Laz.

According to a study by child psycholo- gist Sam Wass and Center Parcs published in 2017, the average British child works longer hours than their parents, between school, homework, sports and extra prac- tice, being tied up for an average of 46 hours a week.

Egypt is no different. Most parents inter- viewed said their kids practice four to seven hours a day for six days a week; month in, month out. Practices even get longer and harder during summer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children take at least one or two days a week that are completely free from sports or trainings as well as two or three months off every year; something that barely ever happens with children who play competi- tive sports. In fact, most of the parents in- terviewed explained their children are often told off for taking a week or two off on summer breaks.

Laz explains that when a child is deprived from normal activities, relaxation, quality time with the parents and socializing, he becomes overstressed, which has various psychological implications.

Life coach and family counselor Mai Kamouni explains that many kids go to her suffering from stress. “There has to be a balance between keeping kids busy and putting too much pressure on them. They need routine, yes, but can’t be running from one thing to the other,” she explains. “They’re physically very tired and so become angry, can’t focus, and can’t function well at school.”

The worst bit is not that children’s schedules are so packed that they have no room to goof around and be children, it’s that the training can often end up in overuse injury or injury from poor stretching.

In fact, a survey by the Centers for Dis- ease Control and Prevention found that kids aged 5 to 14 had the highest sports related injury rates, almost 6 percent, followed by those age 15 to 24 with a rate of 5.6 percent, compared to an average of only 2.1 percent for people aged between 25 and 44.

Heba El Hadidy, a long-time basketball player, a former international referee and currently a board member of the Giza Basketball Zone, explains that injuries happen to everyone, including professional players abroad who have a huge entourage of experts. But here, injuries are, yes, sometimes due to inevitable accidents, but often times it is a combination of coaches who aren’t well-qualified, over training, ignoring prop- er stretching and recovery, as well as over- stuffed practices.

System Overload

Challenging muscles helps them grow stronger and, with the right stretching, leaner. But exercising eight hours a day at such a tender age can take a severe toll on a child’s body.

According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2007, about 60 percent of sports injuries among children 12 years and older are due to overuse. Research published at the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics shows that despite the overall rate of injuries decreasing, the number of overuse- related injuries are increasing year after year. “When you train hard, the muscle doesn’t get the adequate time to relax and heal, so it can’t flex and stretch properly,” physiotherapist Ahmed Galal, who specializes in sports, explains. “This starts affecting the growth bone so the problems start hap- pening.” What happens next is pain, fol- lowed by the inability to move properly and all the way to ligaments actually separating from the muscles.

All parents interviewed had rather simi- lar schedules; all of them trained for six days a week during winter and summertime, and the trainings tend to be even longer before tournaments. A typical day for their chil- dren involves training after school for four to seven hours and going to bed as late as midnight or 1 a.m., either due to practice or to finish school work, then waking up around 6 a.m. to get ready for another day. “Of course she’s always sleepy at school and her teachers keep telling us they need to sleep eight hours a day, but she makes up for missed sleep during the weekends,”
Hashem tells us.

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Dina Marzouk’s daughter, Salma, 15, was a basketball player at the national team before she moved to Germany a couple of months ago. Marzouk explains that, in Egypt, Salma trained daily from 5 p.m. and the practice often lasted until midnight, but in Germany, the schedule is drastically different. There, she only trains three times a week and they hold games on weekends. “The pressure [in Egypt] was unbelievable,” Marzouk says.

Squash practice seems a bit less intense; Rania El Sherbiny explains that her son Mohamed, 16, has been practicing squash for 11 years now. He practices a little less than three hours daily, six days a week. It may be worth mentioning that squash—the sport where players seem to be practicing the least hours is one of the sports that Egypt excels in; with various players like Nour El Sherbiny and many others win- ning international championships.

This insane number of hours the play- ers are spending in courts and at practice is most definitely one of the leading causes of rising injury rates. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that adolescents who spend more hours a week than their age practicing one sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer overuse injuries. This means that a 13-year-old should practice no more than 13 hours a week and take two days off, averaging to around 2.5 hours a day worth of practice. This is a rate we haven’t seen with any of the interviewed families, whose kids train an average of five hours a day.

Galal explains that although now there is more awareness about recovery and stretch- ing, there are some sports like water polo where the players are over-trained and burn out easily. “In many sports, we achieve very good international ranks with juniors, but the players don’t perform as well when they grow older…because they get injured,” he says. Galal adds that a young child’s sched- ule is often busy from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and so they barely get time to properly stretch and recover.

Rasha Nabil is a mother of two diving players, aged 16 and 13, who have been practicing diving for nine and seven years, respectively. Nabil explains that her chil- dren are constantly getting injured, with her elder son, suffering an inflammation on his shoulder and a mild degeneration from the severe practice. His injuries got so severe that he had to have plasma treat- ment on his shoulder. Her younger one has been having eye and ears infections from the pool since he started diving at the age of
6. Other players in the team suffer mainly from inflammation to the tendons in the shoulder, or torn ligaments, among others. Similarly, Marzouk’s daughter has knee injuries, a cruciate-ligament injury on both knees. El Sherbiny’s son, Mohamed, has also suffered various injuries on the court, be it from training or aggressive players
who intentionally target his injured spots.

Injuries only get worse when parents,coaches or the children themselves ignore doctors’ orders to rest and go back to training before due time, the second they feel a bit better. Galal explains that while many coaches are receptive to his recommendations for injured players, others don’t and say “you don’t know this player, he’s mine and I know him better and I made him so I know what’s right and what’s wrong.” Others just pretend to agree with him but end up doing what they think is right anyway, leaving the player confused as to whether they should follow their coach’s or the doc- tor’s orders.

Other times, Galal adds, it’s the parent who doesn’t want to follow the coach’s orders. The greater percentage of parents and coaches, however, are inclined to follow medical orders, “but aren’t too happy about it and stress about the impact of this on their performance and the upcoming championships.” Others would only follow Galal’s orders until they feel better, they then cut off the recovery and therapy process to resume training only to come back with more serious injuries. “I would have an injury in my right foot, so I would put more effort on my left side and come back with a back injury in my left side. You overuse, so things get tired, so your body puts the pressure on other areas which then get affected too. The body manages in a 100 ways but that means you might cause even more injuries in other areas of the body, even if the area that was affecting you at first doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Injuries later have an effect on the child’s mental health, who then starts stressing about not training well and about perfor- mance levels falling. This can lead to depres- sion, Laz explains. “This is the one thing I know in life; when it stops, who am I?” she says, adding that the imbalance leads to a sense of loss when this major part of their lives is threatened.

A good way to prevent injuries in addition to proper recovery, stretching and time off is diversifying the sports that kids play so the muscle groups involved are maximized and there is no strain on a specific muscle. Even though there’s a common belief that specialization is better for players to become professional athletes, a study by the Medical Society for Sports Medicine published in 2013 proves otherwise. The survey conducted found that 88 percent of college athletes played several sports and 70 percent didn’t even specialize until they were above 12 years of age.

Tfte player-turned-coacft epidemic

Many coaches have studied anatomy, fitness and even nutrition, and know exactly how to handle different ages, fitness levels, strengths and personalities. Others, how- ever, are simply former players of the sport who know the ins and outs of how to score a goal or run the fastest, but might not be as experienced or knowledgeable when it comes to training others while maintaining their physical and psychological well being. The latter situation is where problems occur. Former gymnast, physical education teacher and gymnastic coach Nada Mohamed explains, for example, that in gymnastics, any former player with experience trains.

Galal says that coaches are now more aware, but many of them are former play- ers who often train children how they were trained, with disregard to how technologies had changed or the differences between them, as individuals, and the players they train.

Although injuries due to accidents hap- pen everywhere, “a big part of injuries among children is that they don’t have good muscle structure,” El Hadidy says. “For instance, my own muscles are short because I never focused on stretching and no coach ever stressed on it; maybe due to lack of experience or training too many kids at a time. So players grow up and they get injured.”

Nabil’s elder son’s injuries, she explains, are largely due to the fitness coach focus- ing on a set of muscles and ignoring others. “So his back muscle is weak, but his chest muscle is very strong, which draws his chest and arms downwards, affecting his shoul- der,” she explains. She adds that players of different ages train together, so the training is never specialized to the capacity, strength and needs of the player, or even his age, and the kids never had one-one-one fitness training because the coach is “too busy to address individual needs.”

Nabil’s remarks are on point, as Galal explains that the first reason behind many injuries is that muscle strength is different from one person to the other, which is rarely taken into consideration as everyone trains together and follow the same exercise, regardless of their strength or age.

With endless kids to train and not enough time to attend to specific needs, the sports industry suffers. El Hadidy echoes the same feelings as Nabil and Ga- lal, explaining that coaches, especially in academies, often have 20 kids to train at a particular session, and practices run back to back, so a coach may be training 60 play- ers a day, which means the performance of the kids is bound to be affected and “there are too many players to focus on individual talents.”

She recounts the story of a player who moved to London, where she continued her swimming practice. “They immediately spotted her talent and put her with people older than her because of her advanced lev- el,” she states. “There, in a week’s time, they spotted her talent, but at the sports club where she practiced here, she was just one of the 20 other players practicing with her.” Another key issue, El Hadidy adds, is the failure to implement rules and regulations when it comes to hiring coaches. Many sports federations have clear regulations on qualifications for coaches, but more often than not, they are not implemented. El Hadidy explains that although the crite- ria and regulations on hiring coaches and promoting them are improving, they lack implementation and it is often due to nepo-tism, which leads to many exceptions.

Another problem is implementation.

Marzouk explains that although there is a rule that players need to get checked up before tournaments, they often just stamp the papers and don’t really do any check- ups, as it costs LE 2,200. Marzouk adds that she has seen many issues when it came to the medical team looking after the national squad, including lack of awareness when it came to giving out random supplements, as well as misdiagnosis of injuries. For in- stance, they once diagnosed her daughter with a dislocated disc, and after checkups with private hospitals, it turned out it was just a bruise.

But it’s not all Dickensian and sad; many kids find sports enjoyable and it keeps them in shape, out of trouble, disciplined and in the comradery of amiable teammates. Al- though sports injuries in kids are wide and common, staying fit and active is key in maintaining a balanced and healthy child.

Stretching, proper rest and recovery time, a balanced training routine and a well-in- formed coach are all key to keeping injuries at bay and ensuring safety during and after practice.

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