Physical therapist and friend-of-the-blog, John Duffy, spends a large part of his days treating our pediatric patients who have suffered sports injuries. Specialization — playing one sport 12 months a year, every year — is hurting kids more than it’s helping them, Duffy observes on his always-interesting Facebook blog:
I’m not trying to sound mean when I say kids are basically just… dumb kids at times. They’ll run themselves into the ground if you let them. As parents and even coaches, it’s our job to steer them down a safer and more meaningful path, but at times that doesn’t seem to be occurring when it comes to sports. Parents will yank the bag of chips off the kid before they finish them all, or send them to bed before allowing them to stay up and watch an entire show… yet they’ll let them play the same sport year round… even though the evidence shows that’s not the best choice. I see the results every day as a PT… treating these kids with injuries.
Kirsten Fleming claims specialization is causing an epidemic of pain and injuries that is ruining youth sports:
But for every teen athlete who takes a break, there are hundreds who don’t heed doctors’ warnings and continue to overburden their growing bodies. Eventually, many will contribute to the epidemic of overuse injuries — which are on the rise, according to several studies and orthopedic doctors — now sullying youth sports.
“I’m seeing these overuse injuries in younger and younger people,” says Michael A. Kelly, MD, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center.
When growing kids and teenagers engage in several different physical activities instead of just one, the natural stress that results in exercise is spread diffusely, at different times, in bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints. Focusing on one activity, one exercise, or one sport concentrates that stress on the same areas of the body, leading their bodies to break down at younger and younger ages. The majority of Tommy John surgeries on the elbows of baseball pitchers now occur in teenagers and young adults; 60% of these operations are performed on patients between 15-19 years old. (Pitcher Tommy John himself was 31 years old when he had the surgery that was named after him performed.):
The injuries are a byproduct of many factors, including hypercompetitive athletes, a growing number of travel teams and tournaments, and overzealous parents pushing their children too much because they believe they have the next LeBron James on their hands.
“There is a huge amount of delusion, I think,” says Kelly of the latter.
But the largest cause is young athletes specializing in one sport at an earlier age. Instead of playing lacrosse, basketball and football, they are opting to stick with just one, and it’s taking a toll on their bodies.
Fleming spoke to a couple of sports medicine physicians who have seen a rise in overuse injuries and re-injuries in recent years. One is afraid that pediatric knee injuries like ACL tears will result in adults requiring knee replacements at younger and younger ages. Another hopes that more variety in sports will lead to fewer injuries:
Toresdahl says we’ve lost sight of the original reason we put our kids on the field.
“The purpose of youth sports is to keep kids healthy, out of trouble and foster a lifelong love of exercise and sports. But there’s no longer any tapering in youth sports,” he says.
Variety, they say, is the spice of life. That’s true for any human endeavor — physical, intellectual, emotional. Variety keeps things more interesting as much as it keeps us healthier while shielding us from all sorts of pain and disappointment, on the field and off.