“Dad, my arm hurts.”
And with those four words, I was stopped in my tracks, my dreams of a college scholarship at Texas Christian University (TCU) hitting an iceberg.
And my son is only 10 years old.
In reality, he has a better chance of winning the lottery than he does of receiving an athletic scholarship to any school, let alone a collegiate baseball powerhouse like the Frogs. As parents, we’d be much smarter putting the money we’re spending on coaching, equipment and select-sports fees toward a college fund. But, dang it, that’s not nearly as much fun.
Admittedly, fun is a relative term. Being a helicopter, youth-sports parent is something akin to a second job that encourages the Smiths to keep up with the Joneses. And I’m guilty as charged. I just can’t deal with my buddy talking about how his son struck out 10 hitters for his super-duper, ultra-competitive select squad without telling him how my son performed some awe-inducing athletic feat of his own.
Meanwhile, back to my son’s diagnosis: shoulder strain from overuse and, I believe, less-than-ideal mechanics. The solution? Rest, rest and more rest; let the shoulder inflammation calm down. Since he’s not down for the count or going under the knife, we’re the lucky ones. Just a quick X-ray and a doctor’s note that read, “Give him a rest.”
It’s the best advice possible, of course. Unfortunately, many of us hear the words and then immediately do the opposite.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 30 million children participate in youth sports. This tremendous amount of play, especially hyper-competitive and repetitive play, has led to some startling results.
High school athletes account for an estimated two million sports injuries each year, according to the CDC, and more than 3.5 million children under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries on a yearly basis. Overuse accounts for nearly half of all sports injuries in middle and high school students, and, just since 2000, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of serious shoulder and elbow injuries among youth baseball and softball players.
In a word, it’s an epidemic.
“Yes, I think the word epidemic is appropriate when you’re talking about youth sports injuries,” says Dr. Robert Berry, medical director of sports medicine at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano. “The increasing number of kids I see each month is staggering and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. They’re getting younger and younger every year.”
The fear of being left behind
Like most in his profession, Berry says the reason behind this epidemic is as easy to diagnose as the common cold but a million times harder to combat. When a major part of the problem is loving, caring (albeit hovering) parents, it can take a whole lot of tough love on the doctor’s part to make a positive impact. Parents are often so worried about their child being left behind by their select team that they’re slow to react to their child’s nagging injuries.
And overuse is the common thread. Overuse because of the focus on one sport for 12 months a year. Overuse of a right arm for a baseball pitcher. Overuse of a pair of knees for a competitive cheerleader. Overuse of a shoulder for a volleyball player. Overuse of ankles for a basketball player. Name a body part that’s still maturing at the tender ages of 8–15 and doctors can show you the X-rays.
Dr. Lindsey Dietrich, an orthopedic surgeon at Texas Health Resources in Arlington, treats her fair share of baseball and softball shoulder injuries. But she’s also seen a rise in anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries among young female athletes, particularly soccer, volleyball and basketball players.
“These are non-contact ACL injuries that are starting to become so commonplace that it’s a real cause for concern,” she stresses. “Young female bodies aren’t built for the type of constant directional changes that put so much stress on the lower extremities.”
Of course, overuse is just part of the problem. The elephant in the room is another word, far more menacing and destructive: money.
“North Texans have enough expendable income that they can afford to hire coaches and trainers and pay for super-select teams in the hopes that their son or daughter will earn a scholarship and someday play professionally,” Berry says. “That’s just not reality. Not even close, actually.”
Go to Facebook and ask your friends for advice on finding a former professional athlete who’s now giving lessons and you’ll get bombarded with more names than you’ll know what to do with. Pitching coach. Hitting coach. Speed coach. Strength coach. Quarterback coach. Soccer skills coach. Many Division I athletes don’t have as much access to specialized coaches as the typical Dallas fifth-grader.
Playing early, often and competitively is a rite of passage in most Dallas parents’ minds. And “don’t get left behind” is a large part of the rationale behind these decisions, which begs the question: left behind from what? Left behind from a glorious college career starting for Stanford? Left behind from a ridiculously profitable professional career? Or just left behind by other parents you see in the carpool lane?
The promise of a free ride
Berry knows a little something about star athletes; he spent several seasons working with some of the best athletes on the planet as team physician for the San Diego Chargers.
“I was around a quarterback like Drew Brees,” he explains. “He’s a Texas guy who didn’t even play football until his freshman year in high school. He turned out pretty good, right? We move to North Texas and I see select football teams now popping up. I had never even heard of that before.”
Even after all his years caring for athletes, Berry says he’s amazed at the dollars parents throw at developing their children into the next superstar athlete.
“Sure, there are pockets of extreme wealth and [other] parents who focus on sports like they do here,” Berry says, reflecting on his time spent in San Diego. “But it is so much smaller in scale than it is in North Texas. This part of the world is amazing in how much emphasis is placed on finding the best select team, figuring out the best coaching for their kids and determining the quickest path to a big college scholarship.”
Flower Mound head baseball coach Danny Wallace has coached numerous young men who’ve earned college scholarships. As the head coach of the best high school baseball team in the state, and arguably one of the best in the nation, Wallace has watched several of his top pitchers and position players find their way to colleges such as TCU, West Virginia University, Dallas Baptist University and Brigham Young University. He also coaches a select youth baseball team — his son’s 10U squad — so he sees firsthand what’s going on at the youth sports level.
“Parents in this area are very sophisticated with how they approach their son’s baseball career,” Wallace says. “And we’ve certainly had our share of local kids get to the next level. But when I see so many kids with flawed mechanics at a young age that don’t get fixed by their youth coaches, it’s easy to figure out why we’re seeing so many sore arms. It’s not necessarily all about overuse.”
Wallace believes in strict pitch counts, but he says proper balance and arm angle are essential mechanics for a young pitcher to learn.
“There should be much less emphasis on outcomes at this age,” stresses Wallace. “But that’s just not how most of these folks are wired in this part of the world.”
Despite the fact that he coaches a high school baseball super power, Wallace admits that he loves when his roster includes kids who play multiple sports, avoiding overuse issues. “I want kids who are athletes, as well as good baseball players. That should be the case at every level. You’ve got to let kids play different sports.”
Trusting your kids … and the doctor
When assessing a young athlete’s pain tolerance, many parents can become their own worst enemies, according to the doctors on the front lines.
“Think about it in these terms: A child doesn’t complain about pain unless they’re actually in pain,” Dietrich explains. “Kids are very stoic. They feel invincible. If your son or daughter says it hurts, it’s something to take [seriously].”
When his son complained of shoulder pain, David Mayor listened. At first, he thought it was just normal pain associated with overwork on the mound. But when he noticed his son Matthew was having issues just touching his shoulder, the North Texas dad knew it was time for a break.
“My first thought was if my 9-year-old son is going to need Tommy John surgery,” Mayor remembers, referring to a common medical procedure to repair an injured elbow ligament. “I was feeling pretty bad that I may have pushed him too much too soon. When the doctor recommended that we immobilize his arm with a cast for four weeks and quit throwing at all for a couple of months, we followed his orders.”
For the Mayor family, the story had a happy outcome. Matthew came back stronger than ever and hasn’t experienced any shoulder pain since. “Trust the doctors and play for teams that understand that these are just kids and their health comes first,” Mayor implores.
The concussion conundrum
Over the past several years, headlines have focused on the concussion epidemic in football — and with good reason. Former NFL players are suffering grave consequences from the head trauma experienced throughout their careers. But consider this: Instances of concussions in high school games are 78 percent higher than in college, making this an issue worth fretting over.
“The best running backs in the world, guys like Emmitt Smith or LaDainian Tomlinson, will tell you that your body has just so many hits in it, so it’s smart to limit your exposure to those for as long as possible,” says Berry, who has three kids of his own. “Playing tackle football as a 10-year-old just doesn’t seem like a wise move to me. There are so many former NFL players who refuse to let their sons play football. Shouldn’t that tell you all you need to know?”
An increasing number of Americans are choosing to hold their children out of football altogether. A recent poll conducted by the RAND Corporation asked people about their attitudes toward letting their children play sports. Only 55 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable with their sons playing football. The numbers for baseball, basketball, soccer and track were all above 90 percent.
The NFL’s Heads Up Football campaign is trying to make the game safer at every level, from pee wee to high school, but when a 6-foot-2, 230-pound free safety hits your 5-foot-6 running back, damage can occur.
And head injuries aren’t limited to football. For girls, concussions are a serious issue in soccer where heading the ball is the culprit. According to Dietrich, competitive cheerleading is even more concerning.
“Watch a freshman cheer team toss a little girl 20 feet in the air and it’s terrifying,” Dietrich says. “Competitive cheerleaders put their bodies through an amazing amount of stress, and we see those kids all the time with bad ankles, knees, shoulders and backs. It’s one of the most rigorous sports going.”
The courage to say ‘not us’
Most parents would agree that competitive sports of any kind are equal parts awesome and awful. The true key to enjoying them safely resides in the hands of the people looking after your child.
“It’s a conflict of interest for a lot of these coaches to be taking it easy with your child,” Berry says. “They’re paid to win games and create superstars, so why would they back off? Parents have a lot at stake as well, mostly their pride. They want bragging rights over their friends, which of course make no sense. It takes a lot of courage to say ‘not us.’”
Berry, who is set to release a book this year about the epidemic of youth sports injuries, recalls a recent office visit by an aspiring 11-year-old softball pitcher and her mom, both dreaming of her someday pitching for the University of Oklahoma. The first question they asked was fairly typical: “When can you operate?”
“I told her I didn’t want to operate at all,” Berry says. “She has plenty of time to rest and try to improve that way. I don’t want to cut on a young person just to get them back on the field. I feel like doctors have to be the athlete’s advocate since most of the time no one else will be. I’m happy to be the bad guy if that’s what it takes.”
While a combination of overuse and poor mechanics is the culprit in this epidemic, the win-at-all-costs mentality can result in burnout — for the child.
“I know doctors who write notes for kids that they know want a break, but their parents won’t give them a break,” Berry explains. “Kids are faking injuries so they don’t have to compete. The kids are just tired of the whole scene at times, and the parents don’t see it or don’t want to see it.”
It’s a common parental misstep, one Berry says he’s learned through personal experience.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d put a golf club in my son’s hands from a very early age,” Berry admits. “There’s a sport you can play for 60 years without anyone trying to take your head off.”
I’ll have to sign up my boy up for lessons this weekend and then get him fitted for clubs and then buy the newest Under Armour golf gear and then …
Field of Broken Dreams
“Dad, my arm hurts.”