This week I’m finishing up an article for a Los Angeles healthcare magazine about youth sport injuries. When I first started this article, I had no idea that it would haunt me as much as the articles I wrote earlier this year on stressed out kids and childhood diabetes. There seems to be an invisible link fueling these three varying topics and intuitively it has to be our American culture. We are a society stewing in a pressure cooker of stress: too many obligations, long work hours, financial strain and the need to succeed. Of course our children feel this pressure cooker environment every bit as much as we do—perhaps more so. And they are navigating through it as best they can.
Since it’s no longer safe for kids to ride bikes freely or play in their hood like we did as children, there’s no wonder that organized sport has taken off. But when more than 35 million kids under 14 years of age are undergoing surgery or other medical treatments for sport injuries—we need to take a step back. (BTW, that statistic is from a 14-year-old study—so likely the number is even higher.)
This week I listened to two well-known orthopedic surgeons in Los Angeles explain to me the type of injuries they treat in patients as young as 8. Can you imagine ACL surgery at 8? But think about it, some children start group sports or club sports as early as 5 or 6. I learned an interesting tidbit from one physician who works with elite athletes…that baseball scouts aren’t as interested in signing pitchers from California anymore. Want to know why? Because Californians are known to work out longer and harder year-round. Our athletic culture, mixed with coaches and parents who like to take advantage of the year-round nice weather, creates exhausted and injured teenagers.
When a pitcher doesn’t get a break to rest—especially those who have been playing since elementary school—they will likely have sustained some serious injuries by the time they are 18. Even professional athletes take a few months off each season. Our children with growing bones and muscles—who may or may not have entered puberty—need time off to rest. (And kiddos who start throwing curve balls early, or who just pitch too often, find themselves injured in middle school. See This New York Times article on the topic.)
As I mentioned, part of the problem is that young children are still growing and they all differ on timing of puberty. One child’s physique at 14 may be much different than another’s. Obviously, that means that not all kids under 14 can be expected to do 100 push ups at a practice—or whatever benchmarks certain coaches have. Physicians emphasize, however, that it’s not varying from routine in sports that can create ACL injury and even alter bone growth in children’s hips. It’s just not safe on ligaments and muscles and bones when repetitive motions are done year-round.
So the kid that focusses on one sport early on and joins a club team that doesn’t allow for proper breaks year-round, will likely sustain “overuse” injuries. This kid who loves the game, and whose parents may have fostered hopes for scholarships, might actually not be as competitive in high school as the child who only played six months a year, took breaks, and enjoyed a variety of sports.
It makes sense. Physicians whose studies show pediatric overuse injuries rising, have helped organized sport organizations create limits: such as a baseball pitching limit per season.
According to a New York Times article on the topic, Little League has established pitch count limits per game and recommended days of rest for pitchers ages 9 to 18. The United States Cycling Federation has imposed gear-ratio limits for riders ages 10 to 16. U.S.A. Swimming recommends the number and length of weekly sessions for various ages of competitive swimmers.
Youth soccer fields are now smaller and baseball bases put closer together for youth games.
While these are advancements—they don’t really change the culture do they? Look at the picture I posted with this story. It’s of a very small child, trying to throw a curve ball. It was posted on Flickr by his parent bragging about the kid’s moxie. I found hundreds of pics of little kids throwing curve balls with posts underneath them from grandparents or parents all saying things like: “That’s my boy!”
Dancers and gymnasts put in grueling hours and sometimes starve themselves to meet their coaches favor. We all know stories about kids who work hard to become Olympic hopefuls or college athletes. It’s encouraged by parents. And while I’m a huge proponent of getting kids in team sports and off the couch—pushing to the extreme is not a good option. Early injuries lead to earlier bouts of arthritis. Shouldn’t we just get back to the basics and have fun? Don’t we want to foster a lifestyle that embraces a lifetime of athleticism and healthy choices? And is it just me, but wouldn’t it be nice to bring back family dinner for at least two weeknight evenings instead of racing from practices to games and ordering in fast food? Seriously, how well are we really teaching our children to take care of their bodies?
- Sports doctors say kids are working too fast, too young (fox59.com)
- Teen Athletes Suffer From Overuse Injuries (philadelphia.cbslocal.com)
- The Explainer: Why Kids Shouldn’t Be Focused on Just 1 Sport (outsideonline.com)
- Playing for Fun Could Reduce Sports Injuries (wired.com)