Many coaches and parents believe club participation in middle school is necessary to make varsity sports in high school.
That mindset is countered by some high school athletic directors who want kids to play multiple sports, and increasingly discourage kids playing year-round. Many, such as St. Louis’ Kirkwood High School athletic director Corey Nesslage, said they tell parents not to specialize early.
“It’s a society that we’re living in right now where there’s a perception that you need to specialize in a sport when you’re 10 years old,” he said. “Yet, I’ve coached kids that their first year of football was their first year in high school, and they went on to play college football.”
A ‘HAMSTER WHEEL'
All this is happening amid escalating sports injuries.
An alarming April study presented to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine studied 1,206 “specialized” athletes ages 8 to 18. Nearly two-thirds had had an injury, and more than half had suffered an injury from overuse — 139 of them serious. The authors of the study concluded that specialization resulted in “higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and quitting sports at a young age.”
Jim Hoffman, an owner of Advance Training and Rehab, deals with injured young athletes. He describes the youth sports scene as a “hamster wheel” that burns kids out.
“At some point, I want to ask the parents, ‘What have you really enjoyed doing in your life that you’ve had to do three hours a day? If you did something two to three hours a day, every day, would you still enjoy it three years later?'”
The injuries can be traumatic: tears to ligaments in joints and fractures, especially on bone growth plates. These are often attributed to muscles that have built up quicker than bone or fatigued muscles that don’t properly act as shock absorbers for bones and joints. In girls, the risk for torn ACLs — anterior cruciate ligaments — is particularly high.
Eric Lay, a trainer at Mary Institute and Country Day School in St. Louis, said most alarming is the condition spondylolysis — known among trainers as Spondy — a tiny stress fracture in the lower back caused by overuse. Ten years ago there were none; now he sees about two a year.
Lay said some of the year-round athletes can have conditioning deficits because parts of their body are overworked from repetitive movements and other parts aren’t worked out much at all. That leads to injuries.
“Sports skills are great,” he said. “But there has to be the ability to do some fundamental movements.”
Dr. Howard Place, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Louis University Hospital and a former team doctor for St. Louis University hockey teams, said he sometimes requires kids with Spondy to wear a brace or a cast — even though it’s not medically needed. It prevents them from returning to a sport too early.
John said youth sports today bears no resemblance to the way he played as a kid. He put his glove up on the shelf after summer and played basketball in the winter. Later, as a pro, he clocked out at the end of the season and didn’t pick the glove up until the day after the Super Bowl. With few exceptions, he pitched no more than two innings in six to eight starts during spring training.
“If you ask any of these doctors, they'll tell you an important part of training is rest,” John said.
Dave Slazinik, whose son was injured playing baseball, said he tried to be responsible, but he has regrets. His son now plays baseball in college and was attracting some interest from the Baltimore Orioles last year.
But when his son was 15, he blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. Slazinik said he should have pulled his son from fall ball, and should never have let him pitch curve balls at 13.
Still, he said, “You wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.”
“I couldn’t get enough of it.”