In a nation obsessed with professional sports, it's not surprising that many parents and coaches are hoping to nurture the next superstar. After all, kids who excel in their game can get college scholarships and maybe even fame and fortune in the big leagues.
But in a new public service campaign, sports medicine experts caution that those dreams can be seriously derailed early on by injuries that can plague a young athlete for a lifetime.
The campaign features ads showing a team of young baseball players celebrating a victory. The headline asks, "What will they have longer, their trophies or their injuries?"
At a time when increasing numbers of kids are participating in organized sports — and often the same sport year-round — it's an important question to consider, says Dr. Joseph Zuckerman, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). AAOS has teamed up with the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) for the new campaign.
"There's much more of an emphasis in having kids focus on one sport," Zuckerman says.
In generations past, kids played pick-up games of basketball or softball in their neighborhoods, he notes. And organized sports were more seasonal, with the kids playing football in the fall, for instance, and soccer in the summer.
Today, however, many young athletes focus on one sport and they play it year-round through competitive sports leagues and traveling teams. Some kids even have personal coaches.
The problem is that young bodies need to be challenged in different ways, Zuckerman says. Subjected to the same movements repeatedly, the body becomes susceptible to overuse injuries such as stress fractures or tendonitis of the elbows and shoulder joints. And because their bodies are still growing, kids can suffer damage to their growth plates — the areas of cartilage around joints where bone growth occurs.
In some kids, the injuries can cause years of trouble, ruining the chances of an athletic career, Zuckerman says.
More than 3.5 million sports-related injuries were treated in kids under age 15 in 2003, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Besides early specialization in a single sport, there are other factors contributing to the high number of injuries, says Chuck Kimmel, head athletic trainer at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., and president of NATA.
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Some kids do not receive proper pre-participation physicals to assess their readiness for play and they often are grouped according to age rather than skill level, which can be two very different things, he says. In other cases, coaches do not have the players warm up properly, increasing the risk of injury.
Another reason for the increase in injuries is simply that more kids are playing organized sports than ever before, especially girls, says Dr. Jordan Metzl, medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and co-author of “The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide for Parents.”
Too much, too soon
Sports can have wonderful effects on kids, teaching them leadership and teamwork, and helping them to build strong bones and stay fit, says Metzl, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. But "there is such a thing as too much," he says.
In some cases, the adults are the problem, he says. "There are some parents who are vicariously living out their dreams through their kids and some parents who push kids too hard."
Efforts like the new campaign are needed to help reduce injuries, Metzl says. "We need to really increase the awareness of too much, too soon — which is really different for each kid."
Kimmel advises parents and coaches to "listen to the child." For example, if a young pitcher grimaces when he throws or he comes off the mound rubbing his elbow, then the adult needs to step in. "That's the time to stop," he says, and see a health professional, preferably one with expertise in sports. Other red flags, he says, include pain in and around joints and difficulty walking up and down stairs.
Kids also need breaks between sports seasons, he emphasizes, rather than year-round training in one sport.
Metzl advises parents that any time a child is having trouble doing a sport because of pain, "get it checked out." Kids should not be expected to push through the pain.
Experts also stress that the solution to the rising toll of sports injuries is not to take more kids out of sports. Rather, there needs to be more emphasis on how the games are played.
At a time when obesity is skyrocketing among children, it's important that they be active. The key to doing it safely, though, is participation in a variety of activities.
Young athletes who sustain injuries are not exercising too much, emphasizes Kimmel. "They're doing one thing too much."
For more information about sports injuries in young athletes, visit the Web site of the National Athletic Trainers' Association.
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