As a pediatrician, I happen to see many sports injuries each year. Football used to be the most common cause of injury, but these days I see just as many for basketball, baseball, and cheerleading. I am even seeing kids as young as six years of age, whereas in the past these injuries were mainly limited to high school students.
The reality today is that children are too involved in organized sports. Sports used to be a seasonal endeavor where children played up to three different sports a year and took the summer off from organized athletics, allowing their bodies to rest and recuperate. Now a number of children are playing club ball year round to the detriment of their health.
A New York Times article written by Mark Hyman, "Studies Show That the Curveball Isn't Too Stressful for Young Arms," had several comments of interest regarding my own personal observations. For decades, doctors have been advocating that parents and coaches not encourage young athletes to throw curveballs at an early age. It was always believed that this type of baseball pitch would put unnecessary stress on a developing arm, possibly leading to permanent arm injury. Hyman, however, cites studies from Glenn Fleisig, chair of the American Sports Medicine Institute and Carl Nissen, an orthopedic surgeon and lead author on another curveball study, from the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Farmington, where both found no evidence to suggest that the curveball is any worse than a fastball. They suggest that the real problem is overuse: simply throwing too many pitches.
I am no expert on curveballs nor am I practicing in sports medicine, but I definitely see many sports injuries that simply look to be the result of overuse. Even as I see boys and girls with messed up knees or blown out shoulders, the first thing they and their parents want to know is when they can start playing again. The children's coaches and parents are putting tremendous strain on their young bodies. Many of these promising young athletes have suffered career-ending injuries and will permanently lose the ability to enjoy these sports in the future. Extreme focus on athletics at such early ages is not healthy.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with kids being involved with sports, up to a point. For one, it is a great way to prevent childhood obesity. However, such involvement to the exclusion of other sports, academics, and recuperation time, can take us into dangerous territory. Young kids should learn to play a number of sports for the enjoyment of playing and not so much for competition, where they end up spending long hours, day after day, working the same muscle groups without rest.
Thus, I advocate for our kids to become more balanced. Stressful organized sports take away from family time, and the experience no longer remains a simple and pleasurable experience. After school sports are great for making friends, having fun, and staying healthy, but practices that run long into each night and take over the summer go beyond their stated purpose.
Balance your children's activities. Let them play in several sports, but encourage them to take most of the summer off. Replace these off-season activities with neighborhood pick up games that include everybody from the three year old to the grandparent. You will gain quality family time, exercise, avoid traffic and irate parents, and still maintain a healthy lifestyle for your children.