The debut of 14-year-old soccer player Freddy Adu in a Major League Soccer game on Saturday may not have shown the world the young phenomenon's best moves, but it was a historical moment nonetheless.
The West Africa-born Adu, called an upcoming American Pele, has become a national celebrity since signing to play professional soccer last year, appearing on talk shows and being featured on "60 Minutes." Entering in the second half of the season opener last weekend he became the youngest player in a major American league in more than 100 years.
Adu is one of a growing group of athletic prodigies who are entering professional sports at ever younger ages. At a time when parents push their 5- and 6-year-old children into competitive sports leagues and the sports marketing machinery rewards young stars with lucrative endorsement contracts, it's not surprising that teenage athletes are increasingly going for the pros.
This new breed of juvenile athlete includes such teenage superstars as Michelle Wie, the 14-year-old, 6-foot-tall golfer with the 300-yard swing, and basketball wizard LeBron James, who was just 18 when he was drafted for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then there are the boy wonders of the extreme sports world like Luke Mitrani, a 13-year-old snowboarder signed to a soft drink contract.
The prodigiously talented Adu impresses many sports experts with his maturity and apparent ease in handling the crush of public attention. The hope is that Adu and other teen phenoms might inspire kids to turn off the TV and video games and get more involved in athletic activities.
Others say the adulating attention paid to these sports prodigies could result in more physically burned-out, overtrained kids who don't make it to the pros and are psychologically left with little else to get by.
In the high-stakes world of these ultra-athletes, the question is how young is too young?
Good enough but old enough?
For some in the professional world, it's not just the physical health of teen pros that is debated. There are also concerns about the intense pressure to perform and fears that could lead to drug abuse or emotional problems.
With more basketball players trying to skip college, National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern wants to prevent teenagers from joining the league, and instead require players to wait until they are 20 to be drafted. His reasoning? He doesn't want 10-year-olds to fantasize about being the next LeBron James, skip college and likely end up "left with virtually nothing."
The National Football League, which has resisted the young craze in professional sports, is in the midst of a legal challenge to the league's rule that a player has to be out of high school at least three years to be eligible for the draft. A recent court ruling says the NFL will have to allow younger players to butt heads with the grown-ups.
Some of the sports prodigies are the result of improvements in training technology that have helped young athletes develop earlier and faster, some fitness experts say. Parents are willing to spend the money for strength and conditioning coaches, sports camps and other private coaching.
"There's more research on pre-pubescent strength training and we’re finding the more specific we can get to training the body, the less risk of injury and better performance," says Katherin Coltrin, director of Back Bay Fitness, a Newport Beach, Calif., training facility. "You’re going to see talent come out earlier and last longer."
But Dr. Reginald Washington, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, cautions that the kind of specialized, vigorous training that's become popular among the very young can be dangerous and needs to be carefully monitored.
"Young people are very vulnerable to overtraining," Washington says. "It takes a toll on a young body."
Washington also expresses concern for the scores of kids who try to emulate their sports heroes or are pushed by their parents into high-level competitive athletics.
"I wonder about the other ones who trained and trained and ended up with overuse injuries," says Washington. "I worry about the 7-year-olds who run marathons because their parents think they should, or the [kid] who has to shoot 100 free throws every night because his father wants him to play high school basketball. There's a lot of that going on."
Indeed, sports injuries are on the rise in American children and teenagers, with about 3.5 million kids between 5 and 15 suffering sports-related injuries every year, according to the AAP.
Caught up in the fame
While some whiz kids go on to have long careers, experts caution that for every success story like Tiger Woods or Venus Williams, the tennis superstar who turned professional at 14 and seemed to gracefully handle the pressure of success at such a young age, there are plenty of kids who showed promise at an early age, but burned out and disappeared.
"Some younger players have tremendous talent, but being a pro isn’t just skill level," says Gil Pagovich, a partner in Maxximum Marketing, a sports marketing firm. "Success in the pros comes from a tremendous work ethic, but some of the younger guys get caught up in the fame."
As long as fans want to see the new and exciting young player, sneaker companies and other sports marketers will push for teens to turn pro, Pagovich says. When Adu ran onto the field at RFK Stadium, the crowds chanted "Freddy, Freddy!" Whenever LeBron James plays, arenas sell out.
"Everybody’s looking to latch onto these guys at an early stage and get from the basement to the penthouse," says Pagovich.