For parents, it's axiomatic that steering young children into sports is good for their overall health. Naturally, the thinking is that it's beneficial to start getting them moving at a young age, and the exposure will hopefully lead them towards a lifetime of physical activity that will deliver a variety of health benefits. But just like almost everything else, too much of a good thing can also backfire.
That's a key concept to remember when kids get too involved in sports, either by (1) engaging so rigorously that "overplaying" can cause major injury, or (2) playing one sport exclusively year-round which produces the same debilitating result. So as our kids get into the full swing of sports this summer, it's always good for parents to be aware of the warning signs that signal sports "over-involvement."
For years now some leading sports orthopedists have made it their mission to educate families about the risks of their kids specializing in a particular sport at too young an age. They have found that kids are often told by coaches that in order to make the team -- and remain on it -- they must choose one sport, dedicate themselves to it, and play it nearly 12 months a year to improve and succeed.
Many times parents go along with this often-dangerous recommendation because they don't want to appear negative or disruptive. Also, they can often become convinced that going along with the coach's program might help their star child stand out in high school, and even possibly attract a sports scholarship when it's time to head to college. Unfortunately, that's seriously-flawed thinking since the overwhelming majority of teenagers never get that type of collegiate offer.
Despite this reality, more and more kids are being narrowly channeled into sports, and that approach can produce devastating results. Take baseball for boys as an example, especially those who are pitchers. Pitching generates a great deal of physical stress on arms that have not developed enough.
"Surgeons are seeing big increases in young players with damaged ulnar collateral ligaments (UCL) in the elbow, says Brandon Erickson, an orthopedic surgeon resident at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago who has studied the issue," the Wall Street Journal reported last week. "A UCL tear is an overuse injury of the elbow. The surgery to fix it is commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery after the first baseball player, major league pitcher Tommy John, to undergo reconstruction surgery for the injury. The surgery involves remaking the UCL with a tendon from another part of the body or a donor."
Over the last decade and a half -- as this trend in single-sport specialization has taken hold -- there's been a massive spike in baseball injuries. "Youth baseball injuries to the shoulder and elbow have gone up five-to-sevenfold since 2000," added the Journal, citing Dr. James Andrews, a leading orthopedic surgeon who has operated on hundreds of high-profile professional athletes including NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, NBA great Charles Barkley and former major league pitcher Roger Clemens. "In 2000 he did maybe eight or nine Tommy John surgeries on children and teens a year. 'Now it’s the number one age bracket of all the Tommy Johns we do,' he says. 'The majority are coming in from high school.'”
Adolescent and teen girls face similar problems from overuse injuries. Doctors note that year-round soccer is particularly dangerous to developing knees. Tears in the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, are twice as common in girls as in boys. And playing a single sport over an extended period of time -- especially one which involves cutting and pivoting like soccer and lacrosse -- stresses their still-developing muscle and joint groups over and over again. And without strength training, which is often overlooked, surgeries are inevitable.
The spike in overuse injuries since the turn of the century prompted Dr. Andrews and other orthopedic surgeons to create an initiative in 2007 called STOP, or Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention. Its website contains a wealth of information that parents should avail themselves of, especially the section called Injury Protection Resources, where "tip sheets" for each sport are available.
So before your teenage daughter or son returns to the field for their next practice or game, we urge you to learn more on how you can take steps to help them steer clear of serious injury.