Adults are breaking kids

Overzealous, yet well-intentioned adults are breaking kids. That’s the consensus of a growing number of pediatric specialists pointing to dramatic increases in sports-related injuries that were once rare or even unheard of in young bodies.

Stress fractures in the lumbar (lower back); avulsion fractures of the hip socket; ulnar collateral ligament damage requiring ‘Tommy John‘ surgery; an epidemic in ACL tears (especially in girls) – these are just some of the once-rare injuries now commonplace in kids.

Just how bad is it? More than 3.5 million kids under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries, and nearly half of those are due to overuse.

Of particular concern is that many of these injuries, if not properly treated or allowed to heal, could lead to lifelong problems, including “growth disturbance and deformity” in affected limbs and arthritis as early as their 30s.

“We are seeing quite a higher number of [lumbar fractures], especially as kids become more active in sports and they’re playing for longer hours and are having more demands on them,” says Dr. Roger Saldana, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

Tommy John surgery – once limited to pro baseball players – is now more common in 15-19-year-old kids than any other age group. That’s right: a high school baseball hurler is more likely to have reconstruction surgery than a professional who plays the game for a living. Since 2000 there has been a fivefold increase in the number of injuries to elbows and shoulders in youth baseball and softball players.

Similarly, tears and ruptures of the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), are at epidemic levels in all youth, but particularly girls (studies suggest girls are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to suffer an ACL tear).

A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found an incredible 59 percent increase in the number of reconstructive ACL surgeries for girls aged 13-17 over the past 13 years.

Epidemic in ACL injuries in kids
Graph showing huge increase in ACL injuries to kids – particularly girls. Courtesy JAMA Pediatrics, August 2017

What’s Going On?

Adults – specifically, parents, coaches, and trainers – are asking too much of young bodies ill-prepared for the athletic stresses placed on them. Where not so many years ago a child could be expected to play a single-season sport, then take a season off or move on to an entirely different sport, today kids are specializing in one sport or engaged in year-round athletics. The result: overuse of specific body parts or outright exhaustion.

Combine these with increasingly strenuous workout regimens, poor practice and game warmup routines, and too many trainers/coaches without an adequate understanding of what’s age-appropriate for young bodies, and you’ve got the perfect storm for the very epidemic in injuries we’re seeing.

“we all need to think more deeply about the insanity of our youth sports culture….”

At the root of all of these issues? A cultural mindset placing too great an emphasis on competition and athletic success while overlooking the toll it takes on children’s bodies and minds. “We all need to think more deeply about the insanity of our youth sports culture, with its focus on early specialization in one sport and, especially, its seasons without end,” says Michael Sokolove, author of Warrior Girls.

Sokolove and others like him believe too many adults have lost sight of the purpose of sports for kids and the benefits they are designed to confer – e.g. better physical and mental health, self-confidence, stronger socialization skills, the ability to play well with others and, of course, fun.

Instead, a society that prides itself on competitiveness is passing down that trick to younger and younger kids who, naturally, want to please parents and coaches alike.

“the toughest thing kids have to face is the unfulfilled lives of their parents.”

“A lot of parents have a belief that says, ‘How well my kid does on the field reflects on me as a parent,'” says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance. “One of my mentors, John Gardner, once said, ‘The toughest thing kids have to face is the unfulfilled lives of their parents.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”

Adds Ken Reed, author of Ego vs. Soul in Sports: “Today our kids’ games have been hijacked by adults who professionalize them and attempt to meet their own needs through youth sports. Even when parents and coaches have good intentions the damage to our young people is real nonetheless.”

Ironies Abound

Ironically, a lot of those good intentions are based in fiction. Despite what parents believe, for example, specialization in one sport means a child actually is less likely to succeed in that sport at higher levels. And let’s not even get into the ultra-remote chance of actually securing a college scholarship, let alone a career in the pros.

A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences demonstrated that kids who competed in at least three sports between the ages of 11 and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level than those who only specialized in one sport.

Similarly, kids who train exclusively in one sport or never take a break are at a significantly greater risk of injury. “We found that kids who had higher levels of specialization were at about a 50 percent greater risk of having an injury,” said study author Timothy McGuine, a senior scientist and research coordinator at the University of Wisconsin Health Sports Medicine Center.

Kids who specialize in one sport or compete year-round are more likely to be injured, to burnout, and quit sports altogether.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that kids who are pushed to be stars in a particular sport are, instead, more likely to burn out and, as a result, quit sports altogether. That bears repeating: today’s incredibly athletic child or star athlete is more likely to become tomorrow’s sedentary couch potato.

A recent Canadian survey sent to the same 756 kids every five years beginning at age 10 found that kids who played multiple sports were 55% more likely to continue participating in recreational athletics after each five year period versus those who specialized only in one sport (or never took up a sport at all).

Resetting Our Sights

So what’s a parent to do? Based on our research, here are a few things every adult can do to keep kids healthy, happy, and whole.

  • Ensure your child participates in more than one sport until at least the age of 16. Experts point out that legendary baseball ironman Cal Ripken didn’t play baseball exclusively until he was drafted as a professional.
  • Give your child at least one full season of rest where he/she can  regenerate. Exercise is still important, but make sure it’s outside the competitive realm (i.e. going out and simply playing with friends, taking hikes, trying a different extracurricular like theatre, painting or pottery).
  • Make sure your child’s coaches are versed in proper warmup procedures for both games and practices (a quarter of sports injuries occur during practice). For example, FIFA 11+ has an outstanding 20-minute warmup routine that excels at preventing unnecessary injuries in soccer players.
  • Parents need to practice a little self-inquiry to ensure they aren’t living vicariously through their children. If your child is resisting attending practice or showing little to no joy or happiness in a sport, it’s likely time to ask why you’re pushing it.
  • Check your priorities. If your goal for your child is an athletic scholarship or a career in the pros, do some research and recognize that you might, in fact, be setting up your child for years of frustration and, worse, physical injury.

We’ll close with a quote from Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago: “Kids are now subject to adult schedules and organizational formats for adult-driven sports. In the past, kids directed the activities in the backyard. Where adults provide schedule and structure, kids may be pushed beyond what they would do on their own. When they play on their own, they take breaks and moderate themselves.”

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