If you saw the Sunday Special in this section two days ago, you learned how unwise it is to specialize in one sport at the youth and high school levels. As reported by Times sports writer Hillary Smith, the data is pretty clear.
However, there is more to this epidemic of overuse injuries than specialization alone.
Even multi-sport athletes are experiencing injuries that were unknown or extremely rare in teenagers 20-30 years ago.
I’ve had more than a few coaches ask me why. When they played, they never saw rotator cuff tendinitis, torn ulnar collateral ligaments in the elbow, stress fractures in the low back, avulsion/growth plate fractures in the pelvis, ACL tears in the knee, and stress fractures in the lower leg and foot.
Part of the increase is attributable to better diagnostic techniques.
Twist your knee, feel a pop, and have the joint swell that day or the next? Decades ago, you were told you had a sprained knee, perhaps put in a cast, and eventually told you had a “trick” knee.
Today, within 24-48 hours, you are getting an MRI that usually provides a definitive diagnosis, guiding treatment thereafter.
“ACL an overuse injury?” you may ask. Yes. Consider first that in the NBA, 40 percent of ACL injuries occur in the fourth quarter of games.
Further consider that AAU basketball and club volleyball have practice-to-game ratios that are completely flipped from the high school season. While high school teams practice more than they play, the AAU/club types practice once or twice weekly. Then they play multiple games daily during weekend tourneys. With so little practice, they aren’t in playing condition. Fatigue in games — and its consequences — is inevitable.
The lack of conditioning evident in many athletes today isn’t just a seasonal thing. Instead, it is a lifetime, lifestyle issue.
Athletes now may work harder and better in the weight room than their coaches and parents did a generation ago. Nonetheless, to get to that conditioning session, they drive or are driven rather than riding a bike or walking.
Furthermore, rather than playing with friends at the local park in their spare time, 21st Century youth are at their homes or a friend's, playing video games, texting or watching television.
In short, they have no foundation of fitness. Then they’ll suddenly participate in that workout, practice or game.
Physical activity for teens has become an all-or-nothing proposition. The recently all-too-common low back stress fracture is more a function of that than better diagnosis.
Looking for proof? Go no further than a study presented at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting in Dallas last month by researchers from the University of South Australia. They found that youngsters today, on average, run a mile 90 seconds slower than their parents did.
Rather than having fun and getting fit with friends, modern children spend too much time in a car, keeping to a schedule that is always supervised.
That sounds more like working a job than playing a game.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.