Pushing The Limits

It all began in the sandlots--kids chose sides, set up makeshift bases, picked positions, and created their own rules. Miraculously, all of this was done without the help of any adults.

Sadly, sandlot games have almost disappeared--a casualty of the travel-team frenzy that is sweeping through communities, disrupting recreational programs, and saddling children with a mind-boggling schedule of practices and games.

In turn, this is forcing children at incredibly young--and often unsafe--ages to specialize in a sport before their growing bodies are ready for the strain. Unable to handle it, their arms are breaking down, and their seasons are cut short.

Instead of enjoying the thrill of sports, they are forced to deal with doctor visits, surgeries, and trips to rehab facilities.

And yet, many parents refuse to admit what they are seeing, blindly turning their backs, and continually pushing and prodding their children in pursuit of wins and tournament trophies.

Staggering Statistics

A 10-year study involving 481 youth players from the state of Alabama found that young players who pitched more than 100 innings in a year were three and a half times more likely to be injured than their fellow players who pitched less.

It also found:

• If a pitcher threw 600 pitches in a season, his chances of suffering elbow or shoulder pain were three times as high as that of a pitcher who threw 200 pitches.

• Players who participated in baseball more than eight months a year were five times more likely to have elbow or shoulder surgery.

• Pitchers who said they threw past the point of fatigue were 36 times more likely to require surgery.

A Real Mess

Dr. James Andrews, an authority on sports medicine, says that Tommy John surgeries are up five- to seven-fold since 2000 on high school-aged and younger baseball players. This is hardly a minor procedure, as it involves taking a ligament from another part of the body and putting it into the injured elbow where the ulnar collateral ligament is torn.

The article quoted one youngster who had the surgery when he was 14 years old. He blames his injury on throwing too many pitches without enough rest.

The article explained how the youngster played on a summer travel team:

“They started me nine of our first 20 games that season. I wasn’t getting enough rest between starts. But it was my fault. I never told them that my arm hurt.”

It was his fault? Not hardly. I blame his coaches, who shoved aside his health and well-being--all in the pursuit of a few lousy wins.

And it was his parents who sat by and watched him take the mound game after game, amazingly never considering that starting that many games would wear out his young arm, and force him to the operating table and inevitably to a long and tedious rehabilitation.

Andrews says that at any age, there is a 15 percent failure rate on Tommy John surgery. That means 15 of 100 pitchers who undergo the operation will never be able to play baseball again.

Why are so many adults willing to roll the dice on kids’ health?

Travel teams can be wonderful, but not when adults blatantly ignore what’s best for children simply to satisfy their own already-inflated egos.

It’s time we put an end to this nonsense.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at emartinez@nays.org or (800) 729-2057.