Behind any athlete, whether it's on the little league field, or under the Friday night lights, there is usually an equally dedicated parent(s). While this parental dedication is commendable, it's important to recognize when dedication becomes too much for the child's body to physically handle.
Noted orthopedic surgeon, James Andrews, has seen his fair share of athletic injuries. Andrews has practiced medicine for the past 40 years. He was the surgeon who operated on Drew Brees back in 2006, when Brees tore the labrum in his right shoulder. In 2010, Sports Illustrated listed him among the top most powerful people in the NFL, the only doctor on the list.
In a recent interview with Dennis Manoloff, which appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Andrews discussed the rising rate of surgeries he's performed on young athletes, some as young as 12 years old. He attributes these injuries to coaches who don't understand the necessity of "off-time," and to parents who push their children too hard in the hopes of raising the next superstar athlete.
Specializing in elbow, knee and shoulder injuries, Andrews says, "I started seeing a sharp increase in youth sports injuries, particularly baseball." Andrews also noted he's seen a five-to sevenfold increase in injury rates in youth sports across the board. "Now they're coming in with adult, mature-type sports injuries," he added.
In order to combat these types of preventable injuries and to educate parents and coaches on injury prevention techniques, Andrews, along with the Sports - Medicine Society, created the STOP program - Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention (in youth sports).
Andrews determined that there were two critical factors that lead to youth injuries in sports: specialization and professionalism. Specialization comes when an athlete plays sports year-round, with little rest between seasons, resulting in an increased risk for traumatic injuries. He says, "almost half of sports injuries in adolescents stem from overuse."
Professionalism, on the other hand, is the act of training a young athlete under the same conditions you would for a professional athlete, particularly during year-round activity.
Andrews admits that there are parents out there who are misguided in their attempts to make a superstar out of their child. According to Andrews, parents who believe that placing a football or baseball in their 3-year-old child's hands will result in a college scholarship and a pro career need to understand that the odds of actually accomplishing this goal are "very, very high."
"Even the ones who get college scholarships comprise a much smaller percentage than parents think," he adds.
The problem with this dilemma is that parents finance these dreams by keeping their kids in year-round sports programs in hopes of finding their child's particular niche. In doing so, these parents also have to keep up with the demands of the coaching staff.
Coaches "call the shots," noted Andrews. "If your son or daughter doesn't play my sport year-round, he or she can't play for me. Never mind that your kid is 12. I need year-round dedication," demands the coach.
Andrews claims that children need two months off each year at the very least to recover from a sport. In fact, to be safe, he recommends at least three to four months rest. "Example: youth baseball...they don't need to do any kind of overhead throwing, any kind of overhead sport, and let the body recover in order to avoid overuse situations," during the planned down time.
Here's the scary part: 30 percent to 40 percent of injury-induced surgeries Andrews performs are on high schoolers. Only 20 percent are performed on pro athletes.
A focus on proper form is vital in order to prevent these types of injuries. For example, in baseball, Andrews recommends that a young athlete avoid the practice of throwing a curveball "until you can shave."
An athlete must wait until his or her bone structure has developed enough to properly pitch. Also, avoid tools like radar guns. These items induce the idea that throwing at your absolute hardest is a necessity, often leading to improper form and sub-sequential injuries like the "Tommy John," what Andrews calls the ACL of the elbow.
Let me add a personal aside on this subject. Many years ago, I created the first of its kind program – Sports Performance Academy For Kids – in our area. It was dedicated to teaching our children not only how to train effectively to prevent needless injury, but also to know when and when not to train and compete.
Ironically, the pros I dealt with – the ones that were lucky enough to survive over training at the hands of inexperienced coaches as to strength and conditioning techniques – realized that planned performance downtime was critical to a longer, healthier pro career.
In fact, in a 16-week (three module) off-season model I developed for several pro sports, down time was placed at the fourth week, 10th week, and 15th week time slots to prepare the athlete to advance to the performance training changes of the next module of training and the upcoming preseason and in-season.
What was truly startling to me was to witness the evolution of how the kids coming into the Academy over the years were forced by competition to "specialize" (i.e. one sport / one position) to remain competitive.
Just recently, my program had a young, overweight female soccer player, who was choosing to complete her high school's soccer preseason training, in-season competition, and then when that was done go right into the club sport soccer training.
The young lady would fall asleep in class from fatigue because of the cumulative physical load not to mention getting up at 5 a.m. to do homework. Finally, I needed to intervene and say enough is enough.
"I would never allow any of my pros to be handled the way you are" was my comment. "So why should you expose yourself to the potential for needless injury due to excess fatigue, such as an ACL injury (anterior cruciate ligament), which is mildly epidemic in female athletes involved in jumping and cutting maneuvers such as soccer."
The jury is still out on this case, but so am I, as well, until there is a wake-up call on the side of the parents and the athlete involved.
If you want to read more information from Andrews, look for his publication, "Any Given Monday: Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them, for Athletes, Parents and Coaches – Based on My Life in Sports Medicine," in which he collaborated with Don Yaeger, a former editor with Sports Illustrated.