Summer means a lot of things for kids: no school, no homework, and (they hope) a later bedtime. But all of that free time needs to be filled. And, for many, it fills up with camp upon camp, often to hone the kids’ skills in their sport(s) of choice during the off-season. These camps can be a lot of fun, and in an increasingly competitive world, seemingly necessary to stay on top of their game. But is it all just too much? Where do we draw the line between too much freedom and too many expectations?
If the apparent epidemic of youth injuries is any indication, we need to draw some sort of new line somewhere. As Americans, we’re driven to work hard and succeed. And we try to instill those values in our children. But this striving for success has shifted from helping with homework in the evenings to layering sports training upon music lessons upon service hours. We’re starting to become concerned about what kids look like on paper long before the first college pamphlets come rolling in the mail. The result: a hypercompetitive environment. Perhaps the easiest place to spot this amped up ambition is in the sports arena.
Kids today aren’t just playing little league to fill up their summer afternoons; they’re seeking scholarships. ‘Try your best’ is replaced by ‘be the best’ and former friends are now close competition. That’s not to say participating in youth sports doesn’t have its benefits, especially for those kids with a true love for the game. But it sure makes it a heck of a lot harder to just try something out. The ‘just for fun’ kids get sneers from their competitive comrades who loathe the equal field time often mandated in park district play.
Playing sports is no longer just fun; it’s a pretty big risk. As CNN reported, more and more young kids are facing grown-up injuries: torn ACLs or meniscuses, stress fractures, and cartilage damage. Some of these injuries don’t just put the kids out of commission for a game or a season, but put permanent restrictions on the rest of their lives. Kids’ young bodies don’t respond to the treatment for grown-up injuries the same way because they’re still growing. Their bodies aren’t built to endure these types of injuries.
“Tommy John” surgeries to repair elbows blown out playing baseball are on the rise, tripling in the past decade according to the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center. The Center reports a five- to six-fold increase in serious shoulder and elbow injuries as a result of baseball and softball since 2000. Little League Baseball, at least, is recognizing its role in this alarming increase and taking steps to reverse the trend. The organization is mandating rest for players based on their age and the amount of pitching that they do.
It’s important that parents and kids do their own monitoring, too. In a sports world with a ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy, it’s important to step back and remember that chronic pain in not normal and merits medical attention. I know that most kids don’t want to slow down or admit that they should take a break, but with the intensity of today’s youth sports, the kids don’t always get three strikes before they’re out…for good.