During my school age years, the kids I knew played one or more sports. Each sport had a season, and when that season was over, the athlete was done with it for the year. The most talented athletes played multiple sports, and some, like the “triple threats,” excelled in a trio of them.
Out of my three sons, only my youngest elected to play, and endure at, team sports.
He is now 17 years old, and has been playing baseball since age 6, when he was first eligible. He added basketball to the list soon after, and played until his freshman year of high school.
What I’ve seen transpire in the 11 years my son has played sports is a radical departure from my younger years, and has often defied common sense.
The early years of recreational ball were truly fun as kids learned basic skills. Baseball quickly morphed into a two-season sport as my son aged, although spring was always the main season, and fall ball was just to keep the skills going and players loose.
As he advanced, travel teams and summer leagues became an important ingredient if he was to be competitive and excel.
It was clear that more and more was going to be required from a young athlete to be successful. Some kids invested time, practicing on their own outside of scheduled team practices. Other kids went to pricey one-on-one lessons by professionals, or attended camps, workshops and showcases.
By the time my son was 13, it wasn’t even really safe for an inexperienced player to participate in recreational baseball because the kids were pitching fast, and balls were being hit hard. Recreational baseball was no longer just recreation, but a means for serious advancement to high school, college, and hopefully, the major leagues.
When my kid got to high school, he played one season each of basketball and baseball. The following year, he left the basketball court behind to focus solely on baseball. By then the message was clear: concentrate on your sport or be left behind.
His sophomore year, he played fall ball, conditioned with the team during winter, and had a fantastic spring season, followed by summer ball. The same was true for his junior year, only with some added expensive showcases and travel ball.
His father and I always try to figure out how best to support his needs, advance his skills, nurture his talent, and get him to the next level, but in the back of my mind, I’ve wondered why it’s become so extreme. How have we, as a society, allowed it?
I’ve seen players turned into commodities, and some who’ve already undergone surgery or been significantly injured. I also know parents who seem to be living their athletic dreams vicariously through their kids.
Dr. James Andrews, founder of the Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center and a popular surgeon to many professional athletes, recently addressed the issue of overplaying sports.
“Injuries in young athletes are on the rise, but elbow and shoulder injuries in children are on the verge of becoming an epidemic,” Andrews’ website reports.
Andrews said he’s seen a “sharp increase” in youth sports injuries, (particularly baseball) since 2000. He attributes it largely to specialization, which leads to kids playing a sport all year, and professionalism, where kids are being worked and trained like pro athletes, well before their ability to manage it.
He recommends kids have two to four months off each year to recover from their specific sport.
This — and much more — is corroborated in the book, “Why Johnny Hates Sports” by Fred Engh.
In his research of organized youth sports, Engh discovered that kids are concentrating on one sport, at younger ages than ever before, as well as playing year-round, which forces them to use the same muscle groups repetitively. Because their muscles are not developed fully enough to handle those types of repetitions, it places extra stress on their ligaments and tendons, which leads to injuries.
Engh states overuse injuries were virtually unheard of before the 1970s but now are found across multiple sports platforms.
It’s rare to see the triple threat in today’s young athletes once they’ve hit high school. More and more are focused on the prize, no matter how remote a chance they have at achieving it.
And I’m not sure how athletes feel about playing year-round sports. My kid loves baseball, but sometimes he wants a short break from it too.
Youth sports have become imbalanced, and I wonder if the pendulum will swing back a bit to normalize the scenario. It’s not worth risking injury, burnout, or cancelling out all the positive attributes of playing sports.
This column appeared in The Journal on February 8, 2015.