Boys and girls are starting sports younger and training harder—putting their mental and physical health at risk.
Photo by Getty Images
Sports and competition go together, hand in baseball glove. And the myriad benefits kids derive from playing sports is well documented —exercise, increased confidence, a shot at a future scholarship. But as youth sports have become increasingly “professionalized,” the risks are starting to outweigh the rewards.
Children as young as 5 and 6 years old are participating in what Daniel Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, calls the “elite level talent development model.” Today, for example, in various sports, kids are being placed on high intensity “travel teams” that play year-round. Scouts seek out top child athletes to sign to those teams. And specialized coaches promise to help young athletes hone specific areas such as kicking, pitching, or endurance. “The problem is that kids are not miniature adults,” Gould told Yahoo Health. “And it can be physiologically and psychologically detrimental for them in the long term.”
This movement toward a high-intensity sports culture has had experts warning against the dangers of injury for years, and now scientific research is starting to back them up. In the most recent example, a new study in the journal Radiology found that young baseball pitchers who throw more than 100 pitches per week are at risk for a newly identified overuse injury that can impede normal shoulder development and lead to other injuries, including rotator cuff tears.
The injury, termed acromial apophysiolysis by the researchers, is characterized by incomplete fusion and tenderness at the acromion, the top part of the shoulder that typically develops from four individual bones into one bone during the teenage years.
"This overuse injury can lead to potentially long-term, irreversible consequences, including rotator cuff tears later in life," radiologist Dr. Johannes B. Roedl said in a press release. "Pitching places incredible stress on the shoulder. It’s important to keep training in the moderate range and not to overdo it."
However, “moderate training” is not typically used to describe much of youth sports today. In the past, sports were seasonal, and it was the norm for kids to play multiple sports in a year. Now young athletes have the option to play one sport all year long, and many are beginning to specialize in a single sport, said Gould, which increases the risk of both overuse injuries and burnout if they start too young. “Most experts around the world agree that kids shouldn’t be specializing in one sport with year-round training until about 14,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern that we aren’t letting kids be kids and fall in love with sports in a healthy way.”
One of the main contributing factors to this one-sport trend, Gould theorizes, is the successful marketing of elite sports in the 24-hour entertainment and news cycle. As sports have grown, he added, the American public has been inundated with sports at the professional level, so parents began modeling youth sports in a similar way.
Billy Holtmann was a one-sport athlete and started playing baseball at age 4. Although the early years were not that intense, by age 10 he was playing five games a week and practicing year-round. “I wanted to focus on one sport, and be really good at playing it,” Holtmann, now 36, told Yahoo Health. His position? Pitcher. He started having elbow problems in junior high and tore his rotator cuff in high school, but that did little to slow him down. He went on to play in college, when a knee injury ended his baseball career at age 20. Now a project manager for a restoration company, Holtmann continues to have shoulder problems, yet he still plays competitive softball.
That kind of determination and work ethic is no doubt admirable, but it’s also what puts kids at risk. And Holtmann said that pitch counts and mandatory rest can only do so much. ”When I was a kid and someone told me I couldn’t pitch in the game that day, I’d still go home and throw because I wanted to get better,” he said. “You can put rules on how many balls a kid throws in a game and how many games he pitches in a week, but you’re going to have a hard time preventing any kid from going home and practicing.” Holtmann said it’s up to parents can try to monitor and limit at-home practices, but it’s a challenge when they see their kids working so hard and excelling in something.
Gould agrees that parents are under a lot of pressure. “Parenting is very public today,” he said. “And if your kid excels in something visible — and sports are very visible — everyone tells you what a good parent you are. So the they get sucked into judging their worth as a parent on the child’s athletic achievements.”
While parents often contribute to their child’s exhaustive sports schedule, a recent report found that many are concerned about the risks. In a national survey released last week at the espnW: Women + Sport summit, more than 87 percent of parents said they were worried about their child getting injured while playing sports, with concussion cited as the No. 1 concern. One-quarter of the parents have considered keeping their kids out of sports due to fears of a head injury.
Gould’s advice to parents: Try to focus less on short-term success for children and more on their long-term mental and physical health. He recommends trusted sources such as the Positive Coaching Alliance, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, or the American College of Sports Medicine, which have valuable resources specifically for parents. “Parents need to educate themselves on what the best approach might be for their kids,” he said. “They don’t need to become a doctor or experts, but they should learn as much as they can about what is appropriate.”