Youth sports have transformed in front of our very eyes.
What is seen by many as one of the purest forms of development in children has started to see a troublesome trend.
As the youth sports industry continues to inch closer to generating nearly $20 billion a year, experts and coaches are seeing detrimental effects on many kids who are falling victim to the new structure of elite youth sports competition.
The emphasis on travel teams and sport specialization in hopes of obtaining college scholarships or professional contracts has produced an increase in injuries and mental health issues in youth.
“We’ve got injury epidemics in all sports,” said Dr. Tommy John III, author of “Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parents Survival Guide” and a practicing sports health expert for over 20 years. And yes, he is the son of the former major league pitcher whose surgery to replace ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon from elsewhere in his body now bears his name.
High school athletes account for nearly two million injuries a year. Overuse is one of the main causes, as almost half of all injuries in middle school and high school athletes are related to overuse.
Darrell Lauderdale is the governor of the Southeastern District of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). AAU is one of the premier youth sports leagues in the country with more than 700,000 members across 40-plus sports. The organization has become a vital tool in helping college coaches identify talent and giving kids opportunities to thrive in sports, but has been criticized by some in the past for its structural model.
Lauderdale says that AAU has a coaches education program that has helped limit these types of injuries but he’s still witnessed some young athletes fall victim to over-usage.
“I’ve seen kids whose coaches or off-season trainers have had them focused on one sport, put all their eggs in one basket and they over-train a certain muscle group or ligament group and they get injured and are never the same.”
While young athletes are starting to see the impact on their bodies, physically, what is even more concerning is the psychological effects that the pressure of performing is having on these kids.
“We are seeing the mental health aspects come down the pikes,” said John. “It’s anxiety and depression and eating disorders all from the stress to compete and perform at a high level.”
Lauderdale, who is also a longtime wrestling coach, is seeing a trend in anxiety amongst athletes as well and attributes a significant part of that to the parents of these young athletes.
“I’ve seen a lot more kids, more athletes lately with anxiety problems than I can ever remember, especially in the last five to six years, “ said Lauderdale. “They are just so afraid to fail that they just sort of freeze up and a lot of them just end up giving up the sport all together because they are tired of dealing with an overzealous mom or dad.”
Many in the world of youth sports have talked about the crucial role the parents play in producing healthy athletes. For many children, living up to the expectations of a money-hungry parent leads to the child being exploited through the current youth sports system.
Robert Shannon is a Co-Director of the Alabama Fusion, a prominent AAU travel basketball organization that has seen NBA talent such as Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, and JaMychal Green come through their program. He’s seen firsthand how the parent’s pursuit of dollars can be harmful to these children’s development.
“These parents see these dollar signs and the profit that can be made in the NBA and their kid gets a little notoriety and they’re calling every trainer in the state,” said Shannon. “Their kids are in workouts in the morning and workouts in the evening and then go to their high school practice. And that’s not coming from the programs, a lot of that is coming from the parents.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of American teenagers already say that anxiety and depression are a major problem. A few years ago, the CDC reported that 1 out of 5 American children from ages 3 to 17 had a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder that was able to be diagnosed.
The increase in the number of mental health disorders is not solely due to sports, but the impact of an overbearing parent who wishes to live vicariously through their child or who wishes to cash out on the athletic gifts of their children can only increase the problem.
“Every time they go around they are practicing. They are doing something. They are not being kids,” said Shannon. “You see a kid in 8th grade who’s going to be good and parents dive in and by the time he’s in 10th grade he’s tapped out, mentally and physically he can’t go no more.”
The effects of overutilization and specialization are not only harmful, but they’ve also proven to be ineffective in healthy athletes.
“Everybody thinks that it’s separated, that a healthy well-rounded athlete is not a high performing athlete. It’s not,” said John. “It coincides: the higher-performing athlete is the healthier athlete. It’s a lifelong (plan), it’s a journey.”
According to John, athletes who sample other sports and have off-seasons early in their lives will be more likely to have better foundational movement. This increase in foundational movement creates a stronger overall athlete that will be able to compete at a higher level for a longer period of time.
It seems clear that the current youth sports system is taking advantage of eager parents who do not know how to properly care for these athletes. The quest for a $100,000 scholarship or million-dollar shoe contract has blinded the judgment of many.
“There is percentages of parents paying six to 12 grand a year, just for their youth sports,” said John. “That’s the one elephant in the room, it’s the pressure and the costs and it’s the marketing scheme to dig into the parents and they are selling a lie. And the lie is, ‘specialize early, play more, compete more and you are going to be amazing.’”
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has decimated many sports businesses including the youth sports industry. Many programs have been dormant for months and the virus’ financial effects on families could play a significant role in kids’ participation in youth sports moving forward, especially across racial lines.
However, for some around the world of youth sports, this break could be a silver lining. It’s a chance for everyone to reassess the true purpose of youth sports and what they should be. It also gives children a break and a time to revitalize both their bodies and their minds.
“If you truly love it you’ll want to come back,” said Lauderdale. “I think it has recharged some athletes and given them a different appreciation.”
For many, this should serve as a wake-up call.
Youth sports is about developing character, displaying passion, and learning life lessons. It should be no one’s capitalist venture.
It’s time to finally take the corruption out of some of our country’s purest leagues.