An increase in year-round sports has led to overuse injuries in young athletes, which raises the question: Is the quest for athletic glory worth the toll it exacts on kids?
At least one Kansas City-area sports official believes the hypercompetitive nature of high school sports has robbed it of its reason for being – namely, simply to have fun.
“My experience is, by the time they become sophomores, juniors, seniors in high school, they start to burn out,” said John Johnson, athletic director of Shawnee Mission South High School.
In some cases, Johnson said, it’s because of pressure from parents or coaches.
“There’s research that I give my parents when we have our meetings that indicate, for example, that the part of the athletic experience the kids don't like is the ride home after the game,” Johnson said.
“(Parents) are breaking down the game, they want to talk about it and the kids just want to go get something to eat and they'll deal with it another time,” Johnson said. “And I think it’s just really important to understand that fun is what engages these kids and it becomes the link for their activity.”
Another byproduct of year-round sports is overuse injuries like little league shoulder. It’s caused by stress to the arm bone nearest the shoulder and commonly occurs in youth overhand pitchers between the ages of 11 and 16, according to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Doctors are seeing it more frequently, possibly because of heightened awareness of the condition, but also because kids are simply playing lots more baseball.
“Kids are getting hurt in their winter off-season throwing practices, and maybe because they're playing on two teams, and maybe the coach doesn't even know that they just pitched the day before on another team,” said Randy Goldstein, a pediatrician and sports injury specialist at Saint Luke’s Health System.
Goldstein said the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as Major League Baseball recommend pitch counts based on age, and taking breaks.
“So taking days off after pitching, taking a month off at a time, up to three months a year – a month staggered each time – to give the arm a rest,” Goldstein said. “But also to give not only the arm a rest but the brain a rest too, to get a chance to recover from that sport before going to the next season.”
Johnson said high school pitchers should throw no more than 105 pitches. If they do throw that many, they’re required to take four days off before pitching again.
Both Goldstein and Johnson recommend that student athletes participate in multiple sports rather than focus on just one. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is “a fantastic example,” Goldstein said.
“It just proves to the parents and the athletes that think, ‘If I don't play year-round soccer or year-round baseball and that's the only sport I dedicate my time to, I just won't make it,’” Goldstein said.
“But the truth is that the odds of being a high school football player and making it to the pros is about 1 in 6,000. And that's about the same in every sport – high school basketball about 1 in 10,000 make it to the pros, a high school soccer player has about a 1 in 90 chance of making it to a Division I or Division II NCAA team.”
Bottom line, according to Johnson and Goldstein: Students playing multiple sports suffer less burnout, fewer overuse injuries and, yes, have more fun.
So mix it up, Goldstein advised. If you’re a year-round soccer or baseball player, try something totally unrelated to that sport, like swimming.
“What we want to try to prevent is the injury or the burnout that occurs that really makes them not one of those 1 out of 6,000,” Goldstein said. “So sure. Your kid could be that person, somebody is. We want to make sure that your burnout is decreased, your injuries decreased, your fun is increased, to make that reality.”
John Johnson and Randy Goldstein spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Up to Date. Listen to the conversation here.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.