Burnout and Injury a Major Concern in Youth Sports

As a society, we need to start focusing more on sports as a vehicle to build teamwork and leadership abilities, improve sports skills, enhance fitness and health, gain experiences that teach lifetime lessons and shape values, develop friendships and less on scholarships, pro contracts and gold medals.
10/10/2014 01:47 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Young athletes, ages 10-14, are often putting in more time on their sport than professional athletes do.

Pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Ron J. Tucker, who's done a plethora of ACL knee surgeries on young athletes, says the paradigm has changed from kids growing up "playing" sports to becoming professionalized athletes.

Super-organized, adult-driven youth sports leagues and tournaments have replaced pick-up games, where kids organize the action by calling all their friends and telling them to meet in the park in 30 minutes to play a game.

Adults -- coaches, parents, league administrators, sport trainers, etc. -- pressure kids that show some talent for a sport, to show "commitment" by specializing in a single sport.

As a result, Tucker is seeing a lot more repetitive stress injuries in young athletes. These types of injuries were once quite rare in children.

The issue of coaches and parents obsessing about all-state teams, scholarships and pro contracts has become so commonplace that psychiatrists have dubbed the condition Achievement by Proxy Syndrome.

Once again, as is the case with virtually every contemporary sports issue, the reason for this problem is WAAC and PAAC: win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs thinking.

Youth sports are now big business. More and more adults are making their livings off of kids playing games. And a lot of these adults are pressuring kids to specialize in a single sport in order to excel and earn college scholarships -- and maybe pro sports riches. This despite evidence that shows that specialization is counterproductive to those very goals.

"Counter to the prevailing notion that early specialization is key to a pro career, studies show that future elites actually practice less on average in their eventual sports than near-elites and that most U.S.-born big leaguers play multiple sports through high school," says Sports Illustrated writer Alexandra Fenwick.

David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, contends that research shows elite athletes typically play multiple sports in their youth.

Moreover, studies show that kids who specialize in a single sport before age 16 experience more overuse injuries, more emotional burnout (often resulting in the child giving up the sport completely), and have less time for family activities.

As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against youth sports specialization. Therefore, kids -- and their parents - who focus on one sport before they're old enough to drive a car are going against doctors' orders.

It's time for a serious reality check for everyone involved. What are the odds of a kid actually getting an athletic scholarship or playing pro ball?

Statisticians believe that you have a better chance of being murdered than becoming a professional athlete. The odds of landing a full-ride Division I athletic scholarship are a little better but not much.

When you consider overuse injuries, emotional burnout, and research studies that reveal that kids who specialize in a single sport don't have a better chance of earning a college athletic scholarship, the question becomes "Why are we doing this to our kids?"

The answer may simply be that what we're doing collectively as adults in the United States when it comes to youth sports is a classic case of cultural insanity.

As a society, we need to start focusing more on sports as a vehicle to build teamwork and leadership abilities, improve sports skills, enhance fitness and health, gain experiences that teach lifetime lessons and shape values, develop friendships -- some for a lifetime -- and have fun (what kids want most from sports participation), and less -- much less -- on scholarships, pro contracts and gold medals.

Until we do, Youth Sports World will continue to be a place where common sense too often goes to die.