Nationwide, doctors in pediatric sports medicine are increasingly crying foul about what they see as an out-of-control culture of youth sports.
In March, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons kicked off a campaign to educate parents and coaches about an explosion of serious orthopedic injuries in children and adolescents. “They are overuse injuries, pure and simple,” says James Andrews, M.D., a nationally recognized sports orthopedic surgeon. “You get a kid on the operating table and you say to yourself, ‘It’s impossible for a thirteen-year-old to have this kind of wear and tear.’ We’ve got an epidemic going on.”
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, medical professionals reported treating more than 3.5 million sports-related injuries in U.S. children and adolescents in 2003, the latest year for which complete statistics are available. Many medical professionals say rise in sports injuries over the past 20 years coincides with a similar rise in the number of young athletes participating in travel and club sports. The same experts point out that the bodies of many young athletes lack the maturity to stand up to the stress being put on them.
“Young athletes are not merely small adults,” says John M. Purvis, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and clinical assistant professor at the University of Mississippi Medical School in Jackson. “Their bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are still growing, which makes them more susceptible to injury. Growth plates — the areas of developing cartilage where bone growth occurs in youngsters — are weaker than the nearby ligaments and tendons. What is often a bruise or sprain in an adult can be a potentially serious growth plate injury in a young athlete.”
Serious growth plate injuries can cause negative affects that last a lifetime. Dr. Purvis and other medical professionals believe these injuries arise out of something they call “overuse syndrome.” Young athletes today are playing the same sport constantly. It is not uncommon for athletes as young as 12 to participate four or fives days a week, year-round, for a club soccer, volleyball, baseball, basketball, softball or swim team.
And that’s not all. Many young athletes and parents believe the best way to earn a collegiate athletic scholarship is to be seen playing in club tournaments and events against other top-flight athletes. Coaches are scouting kids before they are out of middle school.
The pressure is intense. “With the increasing popularity of travel teams, young athletes might participate on their school team during the week, and their travel team on the weekend,” says Larry Starr, former Major League Baseball athletic trainer with the Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins.
To avoid injury that could negatively affect an athlete for a lifetime, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons make the following suggestions:
• A three-month off-season for children and adolescents to give their bodies a chance to recover.
• Play for only one team at a time.
• Warm up properly before taking part in any activity.
• Play only with athletes the same age and skill level (no “playing up”).
• Listen to your body. If there is pain, see a doctor and take time off until the injury has healed.
• Avoid playing in pain.
• Hold practice and games with adequate days off in between for rest and recovery.
• Demand sports leagues and clubs require that their coaches teach safe and proper techniques.
• Require all athletes to pass a pre-season physical examination by a medical professional to ensure they are fit to play.
It is important for young athletes and their parents to keep a proper perspective: Sports should be fun. The pursuit of an athletic scholarship, while a worthy goal, is exceedingly difficult. According to an April report in The New York Times, only about 1 percent of high-school-age athletes earn college athletic scholarships.