June 21, 2007
Let Kids Play Sports Because They Love To Play
All of the doctors and athletic trainers Joey Holleman talked to for his article in The State agreed that "basic parenting skills might be as important as medical expertise in preventing the more common overuse injuries." Dr. John Batson, a pediatric specialist at Moore Orthopaedic Clinic, in Columbia, S.C., told him, "If your child's out there on the field limping, that's not a good sign."
Recreational leagues and colleges have put rules in place precisely because athletes and parents can't be trusted not to put winning over kids' health. Sometimes institutions have to save us from ourselves. In college, athletes may not practice more than 20 hours a week under coach supervision. But teen gymnasts often train 40 hours a week when they're in high school. Little League had tried to protect kids' arms by restricting the number of innings a player could pitch, setting it at six. But as parents of pitchers (like me) know all too well, an "inning from hell" can go on for what seems like hours when the kid on the mound is getti ng shelled. In 2006, Little League Baseball tested a new pitch-count rule, with about 500 of the 6,400 U.S. Little Leagues voluntarily participating. The new pitch counts vary according to age group: Kids 10 and under are limited to 75 pitches a day, and teens 17 to 18 to 105 pitches. Rest rules are also age-based: Those 7 to 16, for example, must take a four-day break from the mound after throwing 61 pitches. These limits must be approved by Little League's board before being mandated, possibly in time for the 2007 Little League World Series.
Young pitchers who play on an elite travel team in addition to their Little League team are putting double the stress on their arms. And for those who play only at the elite level, there is often no one counting pitches. "Tournament teams and traveling teams operate by the coach's philosophy and integrity," Oakland baseball mom Jann King told me. "You either like it or you find another t eam that fits your philosophy." Micheli recommends that if a child is spending more than 18 to 20 hours a week in a given sport, he or she should be monitored by a sports doctor. "Nine-year-old gymnasts easily go over that," he told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Dr. Jack Vander Schilden, an orthopedic surgeon in Little Rock, Ark., is horrified by the number of games young athletes on club teams play in a tournament weekend. "Six games, three on two days in a row!" he exclaimed to People. "The pros couldn't tolerate that!" And remember, the pro baseball and football players take four to five months off every year.
Even with rules in place, parents often try to get around them if they think it will give their kids a competitive edge. Americans love to fight regulation, but we're talking about our children's health here. As parents, we inoculate our kids against disease, we pay thousands to the orthodontist so they can have straight teeth, we insist they put a coat on when they go out in the cold. From the minute they emerge from the womb we are concerned about protecting their health. So why, when they get to be on a competitive sports team, do we suddenly throw health concerns out the window, fighting and bending the rules designed to protect them? There is only one reason: Because winning has become that important. The time has come to get our priorities straight. No trophy, no scholarship is worth endangering our child's health. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that these athletes are children, not facsimiles of professional players. We can't abdicate our role as protector because we've been seduced by the siren call of the scholarship. And remember, they didn't start out with a win-at-all-costs mentality — the kids getting Tommy John surgeries, the kids taking steroids. They're kids. They got involved in sports because they love to play.