Cordelia Carter, a Yale School of Medicine assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, recently saw a 17 year-old patient in her office. The boy had set an appointment because his pitching arm had some pain. The pain began not long after he had been on break from his sport after elbow surgery the prior year. Being injured again, he felt his chances for the major leagues were diminished.
Carter asked the patient if other kids on his team had injuries. The patient replied that all of the team’s pitchers had injuries and each and every one had undergone surgery for their injuries.
Is this coincidence or more than that? When is an injury an accident or happenstance, and when is it the result of coach, school or program negligence? Sometimes patients doctors see for these injuries have been pushed too hard. Often, speaking with a personal injury attorney is justified.
Kids’ Sports Lives Have Become More Specialized and Competitive
In the past 25 years, the way children are coached and trained for sports has drastically changed. Kids do not just “play” sports anymore. Instead, today’s kids have specialized sports “careers” from a very young age. They are pushed harder and higher than ever before. For example, structured competitions are included in USA gymnastics for children as young as four years old. Similarly, training for Little League Baseball starts at age five.
Kids of today may play only one sport, yet do so for multiple teams throughout the calendar year. No longer is baseball only played in spring and summer, for example. Some kids are even on more than one team during the same season.
As Cordelia Carter has noted, pediatric sports surgeons are seeing major increases in child sports-related injuries, including those in adolescents. In New York State, there were more than twice as many ACL reconstructions in 2009 than there had been in 1990, for youths aged three to 20 years.
Researchers are also seeing this trend. A recent study of junior elite tennis players specializing in that one sport indicated they had a 50 percent higher rate of injury than kids in other sports. Other researchers have found that anterior knee pain in single sport specializing adolescent females is 1.5 times greater than peer females playing more than one sport. Youth pitchers in baseball who pitch more than 100 innings in a given year have a 350 percent greater occurrence of injuries than those who pitch under 100 innings.
Few Will Ever Be a Tiger Woods or Serena Williams
Such early specialization in sports and playing on more than one team in a season, combined with long weekend travel tournaments and year-round participation, does not provide the desired results parents are pushing for, when leading their kids down such stringent sports paths. That is, these kids are not the ones who become elite athletes sought after for college or professional careers. Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, both having been pushed in this manner by parents, are not the norm.
To the contrary of what parents are going for through these methods, there is clear evidence showing that kids who play multiple sports without such specialization, then specializing in their early teens, are better athletes than those pushed from tot years.
As an example, a study followed 376 female Division I intercollegiate athletes. Of these, 83 percent had played multiple sports in childhood, at the rate of three sports per athlete. The average age of specialization in their preferred sport was 13 years.
Elite athletes who did not specialize in their sport until teen years include former world No. 1 tennis player Roger Federer, who also played badminton and basketball. Alex Morgan of the women’s US national soccer team also played basketball and softball. Tim Duncan was a swimmer before becoming five-time NBA champion.
Only under 10 percent of male athletes in high school sports like football, soccer, baseball or basketball will even play at the college level. Less than half of one percent will play pro sports.
Effects of Pushing Kids Too Hard in Sports
Kids pushed too hard and too early in sports suffer more of the following:
- Physical injuries
- Sleep disturbance
- Chronic pain
Who Is to Blame?
While parents certainly hold much of the blame for pushing their kids too hard and not knowing when to say “when,” coaches and school staff are often culprits in pushing kids too hard in sports. Coaching staff are under immense pressure due to field competition for their jobs and the ever-present need to produce “wins” to hold onto their position. As a result, many parents are unaware of just how hard their children are being pushed, and even exploited.
As an answer to this, Little League Baseball took steps in 2007 to prevent physical overuse of kids in sports by limiting the number of pitches a young pitcher can throw in a given timeframe. The goal is to reduce overuse injuries common to the sport, such as elbow and shoulder injuries.
But these guidelines have yet to take hold in other sports. Coaches, athletic trainers, school administrators, parents and others have to be vigilant in caring for kids as they need, protecting them from these unnecessary injuries.