Editorial: As youth sports boom, overuse become a threat

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 05:40 PM

Youth athletics are booming.

All you have to do to witness this is read our paper for a few weeks or drive through the county and see new construction in many areas geared toward sports for the under-18 set.

New turf fields, sparkling indoor athletic facilities and expensive scoreboards are all the rage at public schools. The county's largest private school recently built an 18,000-square-foot indoor facility.

Youth athletics are also a booming business.

Counties and municipalities are seeking to capitalize on this with publicly funded sports parks — destination locations geared to bring in vast numbers of teams for large-scale youth tournaments. The hope is these teams will bring their parents, siblings and even grandparents with them — meaning more shopping, more dining out and more booked rooms in local lodging establishments.

If it works, it will mean good things for our counties and cities. Increased revenue and creating new memories and bonds with first-time tourists are always a good thing for our local communities.

But interestingly, as youth sports are growing exponentially, well-known orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews is urging some parents to lessen their children's sports workload.

Many young baseball pitchers, it is said, are literally pitching their arms out.

In fact, he is seeing more serious arm problems in young athletes than he does in seasoned professionals:

"In 2000, Andrews and his colleague, Glenn Fleisig, reported performing Tommy John surgery on 17 youth and high school players, making up 18 percent of all elbow reconstructions (commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery) they did that year," USA Today Sports reported last month. "In 2010, the last time Andrews and Flesig collected the data in a similar fashion, there were 41 surgeries on kids making up 31 percent of the procedures.

Andrews told the paper the stats have gotten worse since then.

“The largest number of all those different groups, believe it or not, is high school kids,” Andrews said. “They outnumber the professionals. There was a tenfold increase in Tommy John at the high school/youth level in my practice since 2000. I’m doing way more of these procedures than I want to.”

Some of that is likely caused by the increased number of games young baseball players play.

Just a few decades ago, when community Little League was the baseball experience for most kids, 20-game summers were the norm. Now, with travel baseball taking center stage, it's not too unusual for teams to play dozens and dozens of games. And, with the pressure of seeking success in those tournaments, teams' best pitchers are used often — sometimes too often.

Other factors, such as throwing pitches like curveballs before the arm is developmentally ready, can also be contributing factors to damage of the ulnar collateral ligament, which prompts the surgery.

By the time colleges come calling, some pitchers have to opt for the knife, and, Andrews said, "25 percent to 30 percent of kids who have Tommy John surgery aren’t playing baseball two years later."

Parents should enjoy watching their children compete. Competition is often good for a child. But they should also be aware that there can be too much of a good thing.