Take a look at the youth sports landscape: it’s littered with young athletes whose arms, legs, bones and tendons can’t hold up to the strain of constant participation, or the high pressure and often unreasonable hopes of pushy adults. Every day, more children are breaking down and forced to the sidelines--or the operating room--and millions of parents continue to turn their backs and drive their children with ridiculously lofty expectations.
Beyond all the horrible injuries children are needlessly suffering, I just can’t get over that the biggest reason injuries are occurring can be traced directly to moms and dads who, oftentimes through ignorance, believe they can mold their children into America’s next great sports heroes. They think by pushing and prodding their youngsters--well beyond what young bodies that are still growing and developing can handle--the result will be athletic fame, glory and an overflowing bank account.
It just doesn’t work that way.
A few years ago, I was seated on a flight next to a young man who was a minor league baseball pitcher. It turned out to be one of those rare chats that I wish I could have recorded so I could play it back for every parent who has a child involved in sports. It really put everything in perspective regarding what so many parents are guilty of doing to their kids--many of whom may not even be aware of the damage they are causing.
Let me tell you, this young man loved playing baseball. I could see the passion in his eyes when he talked about being a pitcher and playing in “little league” games. He had a natural gift for pitching. Of course, his coaches recognized his exceptional ability and quickly figured that whenever he was on the mound, the team’s chances of winning increased dramatically. So they turned to him more often than they should have to pad their team’s record. For all the big games, he was the one they handed the ball to. During close games, when they needed a key out, that’s who they called on. When playoff and league championship games rolled around, guess who was on the mound.
His parents sat by and watched him pitch a ridiculous number of games because it was a great source of pride for them. Sadly, if a child is a great athlete, oftentimes parents believe that makes them look like really good parents, and they get caught up in the excitement of it.
You can guess where this story is headed. Eventually, the young man’s arm couldn’t hold up under all the wear and tear, and he was forced to undergo “Tommy John surgery”--the procedure that replaces a ligament in the elbow. Alarmingly, this surgery used to be performed primarily on Major Leaguers, but these days it is done on an ever-increasing number of teenagers.
After we parted ways, I kept a close eye on his career. He played a couple of seasons of AA baseball and then faded away.
I can’t help but think that his career may have gone in a different direction--with a much happier and healthier ending--if his parents and coaches along the way had made decisions that were in the best interest of him rather than themselves.
His coaches wanted wins, and sacrificed the health of his arm to achieve them. And based on what he shared with me, his parents wanted a Major League pitcher, which explains how they continually allowed their son to throw a ridiculous number of pitches every season.
Take A Stand
I know you’re probably saying, “Why is this my problem? After all, I just lease the facilities to independent leagues in the community.”
For starters, observe what’s happening on the field from time to time while you’re at your facilities to ensure that coaches in these independent leagues aren’t taking advantage of their more highly skilled players. And if you haven’t done so already, make sure that policies are in place to protect youngsters when it comes to the number of pitches they’re allowed to throw each week.
Remember, your office is the one that leases facilities to these independent leagues, and if they don’t adhere to standards that are in the best interest of kids--then don’t lease the facilities to them the next time around.
Young people need us to make decisions for them that protect their still-growing bodies and safeguard them from senseless injuries.
Yes, injuries are a part of youth sports, but the preventable ones certainly shouldn’t be. And you can be the one that prevents them.
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” which is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com