Julie hadn't even gotten her first training bra. But she had already developed a sports-related injury.
She had been swimming competitively since the age of five. She had a shelf full of ribbons and trophies, and by her seventh birthday, her coaches had moved her up to a higher team level. Sounds exciting, right? Not so much. Julie was expected to attend practice four days a week and swim meets most weekends--year round.
Fast forward a few years to fifth grade: Julie, now a busy eleven-year-old, has lots of friends, solid academics--and no complaints. Well, almost no complaints. She has stuck with the swim team. Only now she's expected to practice six days a week. Sometimes she and her family travel for hours to meets, which are held most Saturdays and Sundays almost every month of the year.
What's the problem? Six years of repetitive motion many days a week have left Julie's shoulders so tender, she can hardly move them some days. When her uncle, the orthopedist, cautioned Julie that she should take a couple of months off to rest her muscles, or at the very least, that she should swim only two days a week, she and her parents were skeptical. How could she give up a sport she loved, even for a couple of months? And cut back? She would lose her edge.
And Julie's story is not uncommon. Parents, teachers, and coaches increasingly report that adolescents and even younger children have sustained dangerous, potentially life-long sports injuries. Take the Florida freshman, the number one player on her high school tennis team, who reported to college and refused to attend practice because she was fed up after two surgeries to repair a torn rotator cuff. Or the Ivy Leaguer who elected to stay on his school's swim team, even after several of his buddies refused: "most of these guys swam six or seven days a week before they were even in junior high. My parents refused to let me swim more than three days a week, and I'm glad. I watched a lot of great swimmers burn out by high school. They just couldn't take it any more."
It wasn't always this way. Greg Butler, a former Center and Forward for the New York Knicks, now a father of two and sponsor of the Westchester, New York and Fairfield, Connecticut basketball camps that bear his name, recalls, "I started playing basketball when I was young. But not as young as kids who are playing sports now. We didn't play ball until fifth or sixth grade. And we certainly didn't play year round like they do today. Kids' sports have gotten out of control."
Indeed. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids should not specialize in one specific sport before adolescence. And they should not overuse growing and developing tendons and ligaments by overdoing it at any sport that involves repetitive motion. Those especially at risk? Pitchers and quarterbacks who perform a throwing motion more than two hundred times a week, according to the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America.
Try telling your child that the Academy of Pediatrics thinks he should cut back on sports time, and you might get some push-back, though. Remember Julie? She refused to follow her uncle, the orthopedist's, recommendation to decrease the number of days at practice. "Everyone will pass me in my lane during practices, and it will ruin my competition times--I can't swim two days a week when everyone else on my team is in the pool every day."
So, what's a parent with a kid like Julie to do?
Get some perspective. And set limits.
It is not just children and teens that are creating the problem. When parents push their children to participate in sports and to excel at increasingly younger ages, they fuel the mania just as much as coaches who want to win at all costs, or other kids who usually just don't know any better. "Parents see their neighbor's kid practicing every day or attending special clinics and sports camps, and worry that their child is falling behind," says Dr. Alicia Rieger, a Westchester pediatrician. "No one needs to specialize in soccer by first grade or to perfect their tennis serve by age seven. Kids should be out having fun and getting exercise, nothing more."
Translation: When your child is young, get those dreams of college ball and scholarships out of your head. Ultimately, your child might earn a coveted sports scholarship or a place on the college team. But for younger children, and even for very active teens, maintaining a healthy body and a clear perspective is key. Encourage kids and teens to strive for balance. Sports are great, but making time for friendships, and time to learn an instrument or pursue some other personal interest like, photography or gardening, is also important.
Kids will take their cues from parents. So, if you set a limit, let them know you mean it. For example, your young pitcher has "Little Leaguer's Elbow," with restricted motion, pain, or locking of the elbow joint. Take her to the doctor, of course. Then tell her she'll have to sit the next few out, and she'll have to limit pitching practice to no more than three times a week. Her injury will improve--and she will see there is another way, despite what peers and coaches say and do.
And she'll probably thank you for it later.