Young Athletes, Big-League Pain

Year-round play and dreams of going pro are side-lining kids with serious injuries

All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy. But all play every day can make Jack a hurting boy. At the sports-medicine clinic of Children's Hospital Boston, where dozens of young athletes hobble in daily, doctors are finding a surprising cause for many of those aches and pains: playing too hard, too often. Swimmers report sore shoulders. Tennis players clutch their lower backs. Soccer players yelp with leg pains. All are victims of overuse injuries, a rising health crisis that is derailing or destroying promising careers.

Just 15 years ago, overuse injuries accounted for 20% of patients visiting the Boston kids' clinic, the first of its kind in the U.S. when it opened in 1974. Now it's 70% and climbing. "Places like our clinic are being flooded with overuse injuries," says founder Dr. Lyle J. Micheli.

Case in point: Gabe Klein, a 7th grader who lives in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Last spring he was playing travel soccer, rec-league soccer, and travel baseball, with a game or a practice nearly every day. During a soccer game, he attempted to kick the ball, fell to his knees, and couldn't get up. He had to be carried from the field. "I felt something pop," says Gabe. It turned out he had a chip fracture of his hip. He sat out all sports for four weeks and has since given up soccer to focus on baseball.


Why are kids pushing sports so hard? All too often they're impelled by dreams of a college scholarship or the riches of professional sports. Media coverage of gargantuan pro contracts has more parents than ever smitten with the idea of Becky one day playing center court at Wimbledon. "It's amazing how many parents project their children at professional levels," says Vern D. Seefeldt, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State.

Coaches feed the frenzy, too. When a soccer guru or tennis tutor urges playing another tourney or jacking up practice time, parents often don't object. "They're being told by the coach: 'Your son has amazing potential and needs to improve his serve next week.' There are few people guiding the parents who have the welfare of the child at stake," says Dr. Eric Small, head of the Sports Medicine Center for Young Athletes in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and author of Kids & Sports.

Making the injury list even longer is the trend toward sport specialization. A decade ago a peppy 10-year-old might divide his play among soccer, basketball, and baseball seasons. Now more are being channeled to one sport that they play year-round. The extra training improves skills but adds to the wear and tear. Baseball pitchers are especially at risk: Witness high school junior Paul Burnside, who recently underwent elbow surgery to save his pitching career.

For some prodigies there's no arguing with the single-sport approach. Golfing phenom Michelle Wie, 14, was a tennis player, swimmer, even a slugger on the Little League Baseball team in her native Hawaii, until she turned 9. Then her father, B.J., decided his daughter's focus would be golf. "It was clear she had more talent in golf than anything else," says B.J. Four years later she nearly won the Kraft Nabisco Championship on the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. tour.

There's more than one path to the big leagues. Soccer Olympian Mia Hamm's parents encouraged her to play different sports. When high school soccer season was over, she was a point guard on the basketball team. "I was a terrible shot, but fast," says Hamm. "My dad never said: 'Go out and work on soccer.' The decisions about playing came from me." Hamm tells kids to avoid early specialization.

For their part, sports docs advise parents to monitor closely how much time their children are putting in. Sudden spikes in hours that coaches demand can be a warning. Still, says Small, the New York doctor, "parents are so focused on their kids being superstars that they think they're doing a service when training jumps from 10 hours a week to 30. They love their child, but they have blinders on." Often those blinders don't come off until a youngster gets hurt. But by then a 12-year-old's sports career can be over.

By Mark Hyman

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