Youth Sports: Have We Reached the Breaking Point?

From a dad who takes time to coach his son’s little league… to the stereotypical “soccer mom” who shuttles her kids to various games and practices… sports are a way of life for many Charlotte families.

Athletics can be a great learning and growing experience for children. It teaches them how to work with others to reach a goal, how to follow rules, and how to win – and lose – gracefully. Sports also give kids much-needed exercise, in a nation where child obesity rates are growing fast.

Many kids play various sports during different seasons, but increasingly, kids are focusing on one sport year-round – in some cases to increase their chances of excelling and having a chance at athletic scholarships.

It’s a game plan that could be dangerous and costly.

Using the same muscle groups over and over could be problematic, according to sports medicine specialists, because children’s bones are still growing. That makes them even more susceptible to repetitive strain injuries and overuse than adults.

“We see overuse injuries all the time,” says Alan Tyson, vice president of sports performance and rehabilitation for OrthoCarolina. “The better kids are at a sport, the more likely they are to play on multiple teams, essentially playing two seasons in one.” Tyson says his group is seeing elbow injuries in baseball players as young as 9 to 13 years old – injuries that used to show up around age 17 or 18 and older.

Tyson isn’t just a sports medicine specialist; he’s also a dad. When his 8-year-old son excelled in soccer last fall, he naturally wanted to play again during the spring. But Tyson steered his son toward baseball, instead. Now his son is enjoying a different sport, and using different muscle groups. “In order to be a great athlete,” Tyson says, “you need to work on different parts of the body.”

Overuse of the knee can be particularly harmful for teenage girls. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, teenage girls are as many as eight times more likely to suffer knee injuries than boys. Researchers noted girls tend to develop strong quadriceps, but not hamstrings. That could lead to increased stress on the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament, more commonly known as the ACL. Doctors also say girls tend to perform activities in a more upright position that also adds stress to the ACL.

Other research has shown that the typical 14-year-old girl with a major ACL injury is likely to develop arthritis in the knee by age 31. Add up the cost of treating the injury as a teen, along with arthritis medications throughout the adult life – and you’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars.

Tyson offers these tips to help keep young athletes healthy:
• Play a different sport each season until at least age 12.
• Be aware of growth spurts, especially for athletes who do a lot of running. Bones grow faster than tendons, so kids need to do a lot of extra stretching during these growth cycles.
• Make sure the child gets some down time during the year to let the body rest. Summer is a perfect time – even hanging out in the pool eases muscles while still providing aerobic conditioning.
• Eat a well-balanced diet, with plenty of protein, fruit and vegetables. Tyson says fried food and many “on the go” type of meals can actually create low levels of inflammation in the body, possibly increasing the risk of injury. And getting into healthy eating habits now can help kids stay healthy long after the final scores are tallied.