When 7th grader Jairus Brents was offered a football scholarship by the University of Kentucky, sports reports and blogs erupted in debate. The young cornerback had caught the attention of Kentucky recruiters, whose offer is the latest in a flurry of elite NCAA Division 1 colleges targeting middle schoolers -- USC, UCLA, LSU, Alabama, Washington, Miami, Ohio State University and Clemson -- each hoping their particular investment in the future pays off once these students graduate from high school.
While many journalists are understandably questioning the ethics of recruiting athletes so young, we must also keep our eye on the ball with regard to the physical impact such a practice may produce.
Sports medicine physicians are already seeing more injuries in young athletes than ever before. A major component of these injuries is the training load placed upon bodies that are neither physically nor psychologically ready for elite, adult training loads. Not only do young, competitive athletes want to push, but their parents often want to push even harder.
To add middle school recruiting to the mix only increases the already mounting pressure on young athletes and parents, who may believe they must be ready to snag an offer from LSU or USC in the 7th grade. If this is the case, what must their training become in the 5th and 6th grades?
Predictably, we'll see early specialization of young athletes who will most likely miss a base of general development. These children will endure year-round training, training camps, strength and conditioning coaches, track/sprint coaches, personal coaches and specialty coaches based on player position. The physical demands will be excessive for such immature bodies, resulting in overuse injuries. We'll see more stress fractures, muscle strains and tears, sprains and joint injuries, tendinitis, early disc injuries and degeneration, not to mention the increased possibility of concussions. And all of this will take place while the students simultaneously attempt to study, physically grow, and learn to socialize normally to become functional members of society.
While there are certainly stories of athletes who started very young and became successful, there are far larger numbers of those who didn't make it due to injuries -- both physical and psychological. To borrow a phrase I used in my column for Iron Man, these young hopefuls risk joining the athlete junk pile -- those whose promising talent wasn't enough to keep them from dropping out. Try performing under that kind of pressure! Beyond the obvious overuse injuries noted above, psychological stress and overtraining can lead to immune system suppression and illness, and even clinical depression.
The concept of developing young athletes to perform at a later -- and appropriate -- time of their sports careers is being lost for the perceived competitive edge of identifying younger talent for a sport that requires size, strength, speed, agility and violent impact. The solution? Very simply, do not allow colleges to contact any young athlete before late in their 11th grade year. Allow children to develop into young adults with reasonable and effective training programs that promote their physical well-being.