When we think of overuse injuries in sports, we tend to think of professional athletes. The truth is that overuse injuries are on the rise among youth athletes of increasingly tender years. Boston Children’s Hospital has reported overuse injuries such as tendonitis at alarmingly escalating levels, despite better awareness of sports injury prevention among coaches and other youth sports personnel.
Children are showing up in doctor’s offices with injuries more typical of professional athletes. In many cases, these injuries are leading to intensive treatment and even surgery, including “Tommy John” procedures to replace ligaments in the elbow worn out by pitching in baseball and softball, or treatments for rotator cuff tears that stem from “swimmer’s shoulder.”
So what’s behind the rise in overuse injuries? While kids may not be playing more sports today than they did in the past, they are playing a smaller variety of sports, which concentrates injuries in just one area, according to a recent Sports Destination Management article by Sam Snow and Todd Roby of the organization U.S. Youth Soccer.
“What’s really interesting…is the fact that more and more, despite the fact that there are significantly increased sports options available to kids today, kids are being encouraged by their parents to concentrate on a single club sport,” wrote Snow and Roby. “By contrast, what we’re saying is that young kids, even starting in kindergarten, should participate in a variety of activities, rather than specializing in one sport at too early of an age.”
Because children’s bodies are still developing, they are actually at greater risk of overuse injuries than adult athletes, particularly in the knees and feet. Playing a variety of sports cross-trains the muscles and reduces the risk of injury to a single area or muscle group by giving the prominent muscles from “Sport A” a rest while the child engages in “Sport B.”
Behind the insistence on a single sport is often a desire to be competitive rather than to simply emphasize physical activity for health and fun. The American Society for Sports Medicine, in commenting on the rise in overuse activities, that “an emphasis on competitive success, often driven by goals of elite-level travel team selection, collegiate scholarships, Olympic and National team membership, and even professional contracts, has seemingly become widespread.”
“This has resulted in increased pressure to begin high-intensity training at young ages,” wrote ASSM members in a statement last year for the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. “Such an excessive focus on early intensive training and competition at young ages rather than skill development can lead to overuse injury and burnout.”
While the burden of prevention is generally laid at the feet of youth coaches, parents are on the hook, too. According to Safe Kids USA, though 62 percent of organized sports-related injuries occur during practice, one-third of parents do not encourage their children to take the same safety precautions at practice that they would during a game.