It starts out innocently enough.
You buy your kindergartner hockey skates, or a soccer ball. Maybe a T-ball bat. You get involved in a community or church recreation league.
The first year plays out like the feel-good parts of the movie Parenthood. There’s no stealing bases or basketballs. The nets are low, the fields are half-sized. The kids fist-pump when they make a goal — sometimes on the wrong net. Nobody keeps score.
The next year, they get better. They make plays. They pass the puck. They catch the ball. So you form your own team and coach. You win some games. The next season, you consider registering the team with a club.
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And, just like that, you’re hooked.
You had no clue that in as little as three years you could be caught up in a dizzying and expensive youth sports scene — a scene that’s playing out in most metropolitan areas in the country.
It’s a scene fraught with overuse and even traumatic injuries in young bodies still growing and developing bone and muscle — so much so that medical associations, athletic trainers and even professional athletes are speaking out against it.
More than 3.5 million kids 14 and under are treated annually for sports injuries, and the numbers are increasing. More than half of all youth sports injuries are preventable. In about half the cases, the injuries are associated with overuse, often linked with the growing trend of children specializing in one sport and playing year-round.
Despite the warnings, the options to practice and play have exploded over the past decade. Competition now ratchets up before middle school, with select teams in clubs and leagues. And there is pressure to specialize in one sport very early and play it year-round, lest your child get left behind.
“This whole dynamic has become big business at this point. It’s moving in that direction, and it’s not going to stop,” said Rick Strickland, owner of the youth baseball club franchise St. Louis Pirates.
Baseball pitcher Tommy John considers it a racket, with parents being led by the nose to spend with promises of scholarships and better performance.
John is tired of hearing about kids getting his namesake elbow repair surgery from pitching and throwing too much. He’s now the spokesman for the STOP Sports Injuries campaign sponsored by nearly a dozen medical associations. Its supporters advise against children playing the same sport year-round without downtime.
“I asked parents who do this, ‘Who is the best pitcher in MLB?' They say, ‘Well, probably Justin Verlander.’ I say, ‘You think Justin Verlander plays baseball year-round? If he’s the best, why wouldn’t he do it to get better?'”
Wherever you stand, parents with kids who love sports are caught in the middle trying to make responsible choices.
Angela Andrasko of Webster Groves, Mo., sees it with her firstborn, Miles. People were noticing his knack for athletics. A basketball and a baseball coach both suggested to Andrasko that Miles pick a sport and specialize. She declined.
Last summer, a coach from an opposing baseball team shook Miles’ hand on the field just before the start of the first inning in a Florissant tournament. The coach wouldn’t let go and kept talking. Andrasko looked on, concerned. Turns out, the coach was hoping to recruit Miles to his team. Andrasko joked he should first talk to Miles’ agent: her.
“I’m flattered that someone would think Miles is talented, because he works very hard at baseball, and he loves it so much,” she said. “But it’s also a daunting thing as well. I think, ‘OK, some adult is interested in approaching my kid.’
“But he’s 8.”
Everything you remembered about youth sports when you grew up has changed. Forget the eight-game season of the middle schooler, though they still exist in some recreation leagues. Heck, forget the once universal dream of making varsity in high school. In some sports, particularly club hockey and soccer, some high-level club teams forbid players from competing on their high school teams. The level of competition is too low.
Now there are a vast array of year-round club choices in almost every sport: hockey, baseball, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, swimming, lacrosse. You’ve probably seen the stickers on the rear windows of minivans and SUVs.
There are annual tryouts for elite and traveling teams for kids in elementary school. Fees for select clubs can be upward of $1,000 for kids as young as 6. There are hours of weekly evening practices in training facilities in remote industrial parks. Mandatory spirit gear. Pressure for private instruction. Travel tournaments on weekends.
Parents admit the time and money spent shuttling kids to competition and practices appear over-the-top. Robert Goldson of Ladue, Mo., said he’s in for $2,500 a year for a swim club team for his two girls, 8 and 12, for membership, training and equipment. They swim three to four times a week, year-round.
“I can’t believe it. I’m sometimes like, ‘Oh, my God. I didn’t do any of that growing up. I got a lacrosse stick, and I got a helmet in seventh grade,'” Goldson said.
Most parents point to the benefits: the discipline of balancing sports with school, the strong instruction, the friends and the fun of traveling over a weekend where kids make human pyramids or play hot box in the hallways of a hotel. That points to the growing social component in this.
“There’s the pressure for the social status of your kid,” Goldson said. “I think that’s why people feel pressure to get their kids up and running, I think they want to make sure their kids are included.”
Most parents tell you they try to keep a balance. For Goldson, there’s no goal of college scholarships. The eldest doesn’t go to nearly the number of weekend swim meets that are expected by the club. Yet still, there is pressure to keep up: He feels the experience will give her the edge to swim varsity in high school.
The organizations say it’s about keeping up with the competition, molding young athletes to perform their best, balancing sports with school and possibly getting a leg up on college.
Most of the major sports clubs in St. Louis have pages on their websites for recruiters, listing the club’s prospects, who can be as young as 14.
“The big thing is, the more you play it, the better at it you should get,” said Strickland, a scout for the New York Mets and the owner of the youth club, the Pirates. He said children in his club play fewer games, train more and get appropriate conditioning.
Strickland said the intensity is necessary to compete.
Many coaches and parents believe club participation in middle school is necessary to make varsity sports in high school.
That mindset is countered by some high school athletic directors who want kids to play multiple sports, and increasingly discourage kids playing year-round. Many, such as St. Louis’ Kirkwood High School athletic director Corey Nesslage, said they tell parents not to specialize early.
“It’s a society that we’re living in right now where there’s a perception that you need to specialize in a sport when you’re 10 years old,” he said. “Yet, I’ve coached kids that their first year of football was their first year in high school, and they went on to play college football.”
A ‘HAMSTER WHEEL'
All this is happening amid escalating sports injuries.
An alarming April study presented to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine studied 1,206 “specialized” athletes ages 8 to 18. Nearly two-thirds had had an injury, and more than half had suffered an injury from overuse — 139 of them serious. The authors of the study concluded that specialization resulted in “higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and quitting sports at a young age.”
Jim Hoffman, an owner of Advance Training and Rehab, deals with injured young athletes. He describes the youth sports scene as a “hamster wheel” that burns kids out.
“At some point, I want to ask the parents, ‘What have you really enjoyed doing in your life that you’ve had to do three hours a day? If you did something two to three hours a day, every day, would you still enjoy it three years later?'”
The injuries can be traumatic: tears to ligaments in joints and fractures, especially on bone growth plates. These are often attributed to muscles that have built up quicker than bone or fatigued muscles that don’t properly act as shock absorbers for bones and joints. In girls, the risk for torn ACLs — anterior cruciate ligaments — is particularly high.
Eric Lay, a trainer at Mary Institute and Country Day School in St. Louis, said most alarming is the condition spondylolysis — known among trainers as Spondy — a tiny stress fracture in the lower back caused by overuse. Ten years ago there were none; now he sees about two a year.
Lay said some of the year-round athletes can have conditioning deficits because parts of their body are overworked from repetitive movements and other parts aren’t worked out much at all. That leads to injuries.
“Sports skills are great,” he said. “But there has to be the ability to do some fundamental movements.”
Dr. Howard Place, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Louis University Hospital and a former team doctor for St. Louis University hockey teams, said he sometimes requires kids with Spondy to wear a brace or a cast — even though it’s not medically needed. It prevents them from returning to a sport too early.
John said youth sports today bears no resemblance to the way he played as a kid. He put his glove up on the shelf after summer and played basketball in the winter. Later, as a pro, he clocked out at the end of the season and didn’t pick the glove up until the day after the Super Bowl. With few exceptions, he pitched no more than two innings in six to eight starts during spring training.
“If you ask any of these doctors, they'll tell you an important part of training is rest,” John said.
Dave Slazinik, whose son was injured playing baseball, said he tried to be responsible, but he has regrets. His son now plays baseball in college and was attracting some interest from the Baltimore Orioles last year.
But when his son was 15, he blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. Slazinik said he should have pulled his son from fall ball, and should never have let him pitch curve balls at 13.
Still, he said, “You wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.”
“I couldn’t get enough of it.”