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Overuse Injuries in Youth Sports Result of Competitive Culture


Returning Too Soon


Overuse injuries now account for a majority of sports injuries seen in children," reports Dr. Sally Harris, past Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Section On Sports Medicine and Fitness. Fearing they will be left behind, players rush to return to action after suffering an injury before it has fully healed. Research shows that young athletes are increasingly suffering a string of injuries which often begin at age nine or ten when they are pushing their developing bodies to the limit.

Nowhere has the epidemic of overuse injuries been as severe as in girls' gymnastics. In her classic book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making And Breaking Of Elite Gymnasts And Figure Skaters, author Joan Ryan blamed coaches and parents. "Coaches push because they are paid to produce great gymnasts. They are relentless about weight because physically round gymnasts and skaters don't win. Coaches are intolerant of injuries because in the race against puberty, time off is death. Their job is not to turn out happy, well-adjusted young women; it is to turn out champions. If they scream, belittle or ignore, if they prod an injured girl to forget her pain, if they push her to her to drop out of school, they are only doing what the parents have paid them to do."

Coaches to blame?

"Much of the blame for the young athlete's problems falls on the coaches and parents. Obviously, no parent wakes up in the morning and plots how to ruin his or her child's life. But the money, the fame and the promise of great achievement can turn a parent's head. Ambition gets perverted. The boundaries of parents and coaches bloat and mutate, with the parent becoming the ruthless coach and the coach becoming the controlling parent, says Ryan.

How many fathers are there who install pitching mounds and home plates in their back yards? Youth baseball rules limit the number of pitches a pitcher can throw. Yet some of those same pitchers go home and pitch the equivalent of ten times the limit, or pitch for multiple teams, putting their arms and shoulders at risk of injury.

Experts say that up to half of all injuries our children sustain in youth sports are preventable. If we, as parents, pay attention to training methods, safe equipment and playing surfaces, the psychological health of our children, and make sure they undergo periodic preparticipation physical evaluations, injuries will decrease. It's up to you to become involved in youth sports in a positive way and to make sure that coaches, clubs and leagues put safety first.

Updated: May 13, 2010