The Growing Epidemic Of Youth Sports Injuries: How We Can Stop It

This article was actually contributed by my little sister, who’s currently a high school senior studying sports medicine through an advanced academic program offered by California State University, Northridge. Great work on this paper, sis!

This research paper is focused on the current epidemic of injuries in youth sports and how it can be stopped. I was inspired by this topic as a result of my interest in sports medicine and physical rehabilitation, as well as my own personal experience of sports injury. I am 17 years young and I have already had two knee surgeries; this paper is my first vendetta to prevent fellow athletes from sharing my fate. My first approach was to reveal the exact cause of these injuries, and to understand what pushes these athletes to play in spite of the pain and possibility of severely damaging their bodies permanently. Not only did I examine the types of injuries these athletes of various sports are dealt, but also why this specific age group, ranging from 11-18, is more prone to such injury. To support my paper with adequate research, I used current statistics, as well as statistics derived 10 years ago, for proper comparison. In addition to the facts, I made sure to include the comments and opinions of many orthopedic surgeons who revealed the main causes of injury for their athletic patients. Finally, to really hit home, I had to look beyond the facts and reach my audience at a personal level; case studies were presented to fully project the reality of this epidemic, and how it has effected, and possibly stopped a person’s athletic career. My findings were simple; athletes, who are in the growth and developmental state of their lives, are putting too much intensity into their sport without giving their bodies the rest it needs to recuperate. The neglect of safety measures is the work of coaches, parents, and trainers whom often put too much emphasis on the result of the game itself, rather than the athletes.

Enter the mind of a young athlete and the thoughts go as follows: how can I be faster, stronger, and ultimately the best? Athletes are taught at a young age aggression, ambition, and perseverance as they progress in their sport; however, has it occurred to anyone to teach them how to be safe? Perhaps, it is just an afterthought lost in the competitive nature of sports; nevertheless, this neglect has evolved into a devastating epidemic of injuries in youth sports. As a retired athlete and aspiring student, consumed by intrigue in the field of sports medicine, learning how to reverse this pattern is crucial. It is imperative that athletes, parents, and coaches alike are made aware of the dangers of sports, and how to stay healthy in spite of them. In order to fix a problem of this magnitude, you must dissect it. Be prepared to explore what kinds of injuries our athletes are dealt, the various causes- be it physical or mental-of these injuries, the consequences athletes must face, and why this has been overlooked. Statistics ranging within the last 20 years have a jaw dropping effect when the realization hits that these painful numbers could have been prevented. This brings me to my final point: prevention. Some actions have been made in the attempt to quench this growing issue, but it is slow rolling. This epidemic has caused trials and hurtles for many athletes already, myself included, but many things can still be done to further protect our young athletes, enabling them to continue to excel in their sport by safer means.

A study conducted by Safe Kids Worldwide revealed that a young athlete visits a hospital for a sports-related injury every 25 seconds.

With competitive sports comes the expectation of injury, however, sometimes the phrase “no pain, no gain” is tragically wrong, and the phrase “walk it off” might not be physically possible for the compromised athlete. Injury has always been a risk involved with participating in recreational activities, however many conditions have caused the rate of injury to skyrocket. In 2001, a little over 3.5 million children received medical treatment as a result of sports injuries (National Center for Sports Safety 2001). Within a decade, the number of sports induced injuries accounted for in the Emergency Room jumped to a whopping 4.3 million (D. Geier, 2011). A broad age group participates in sports, yet 5-14 year old children have suffered about 40 percent of all sports related injuries; this puts young athletes on a pedestal they do not want to be on (National Center for Sports Safety). It is not solely the professional athletes who are offering their bodies as a sacrifice to playing their sport, but high school athletes- if not younger- are receiving injuries that once belonged to professional athletes specifically (J. Roberts). Young athletes are experiencing more pain, more frequently than ever before, and the proof is in the numbers.

The question you may be asking now, is what types of injuries cost these young athletes precious playing time, upon receiving medical treatment. According to David Geier, surgeons treat 4 times as many overuse injuries in comparison to 5 years prior (2011). Is there such a thing as working yourself too hard, too much? Absolutely. When entering high school, the world of sports broadens and intensifies as the pressure to make higher ranked teams is perched on the shoulders of aspiring freshmen athletes. The level of competition means only one thing: you have to be the best, to play with the best. In order to make this possible, that means focusing all your physical energy to excel in your sport of choice, every day of the year. Club season, Off-Season, High School Season, and summer recreational camps do not allow any room for rest and rehabilitation for the young athlete, thus resulting in overuse injuries (J. Roberts 2004). Popular opinion would suggest that this method of training would improve one’s athletic skills; however, those educated in the field of sports medicine have mind to suggest differently. The effect of this overzealous emphasis for one single sport not only wears down an athlete’s body, but also throws off its careful balance of muscle, leading to consequences. For example, Ana Sani, a 13-year-old soccer player, had the displeasure of rupturing her Anterior Cruciate Ligament, which if you didn’t know, is a very serious injury to the knee. A certified Strengthening and Conditioning Coach, Vinny Sullivan, reveals her prognoses for Ana’s injury: “her hamstring muscles were much weaker than the rest of her leg structure…Her body hadn’t developed anything but the muscles needed to play soccer” (B. Pennington 2005). At age 13, most everyone is already undergoing the agonizing effects of puberty while being forced to attend middle school, despite these embarrassing pretenses; shouldn’t that be enough of a burden, as opposed to adding an extremely invasive surgery to the mix? It would be insanity to deny the ludicrousness of a 13-year-old girl enduring surgery for an injury that occurred all in the name of youth sports. The National Center for Sports Safety reveals “overuse injury…is responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries in middle to high school students” (2001). Overuse injuries include sprains and strains not limited to tendonitis, tennis elbow, Osgood-Schlatter, Sever’s disease, and the ever cliché Achilles heel (J. Roberts). In addition to those specifically named, many ligaments and tendons in the foot, knee, and shoulder are at risk for wear and tear depending on which sport is being evaluated. Nevertheless, severe injuries to the joints, such as torn ligaments that require surgery, increase an athlete’s risk for early onset osteoarthritis. Furthermore, these facts suggests that too much of a good thing, is in fact not good.

A rather significant trend to pick up on is the fact that overuse injuries effect high school and middle school athletes more so than collegiate athletes. If one tried to argue that 13-year-olds are more athletically devoted and inclined than 22-year-old collegiate athletes, they would simply deserve to be laughed at. At this point, it is not commendable to only study the sweat poured into an athlete’s sport, but the timing at which the effort is placed. From the onset of puberty- at age 9 for girls, and 11 for boys- children are growing within those precious years of middle school and high school, until their bodies reach their full maturity at around 18 years of age. Those years of growth and development are delicate and unfortunately abused by the name of youth sports, which maintains a level of competition that is atrociously high. Jeff Roberts warns, “The greatest threat to a young athlete is an injury to the growth plate, a section of every large bone located near a joint. When bones are growing in childhood and adolescence, the growth plates are the weakest parts of the skeleton. If a growth plate is repeatedly disturbed, the bone may grow deformed or even halt growing altogether” (2004). Between the ages of 11 and 18, the prominent stages of growth and development, young athletes push past their anatomical bounds when they over exert themselves, daily, to perform the sport they love. This, in combination with the amount of overuse and excessive training, is the force that works discretely in the deterioration of our young athlete’s bodies, one muscle fiber at a time.

Upon your recent enlightenment on the truth behind athletic injury, playing sports seems hardly worth the risk, right? Wrong. Although most athletes are aware of basic injury risk, despite their negligence to the severity and consequences of injury, they play on with the utmost intensity, passion, and heart. Young athletes, especially those in competitive club level sports, literally pour their blood, sweat, and tears into each game, practice, and conditioning session. The greatest question of all is: why? Youth Athletics is beneficial for many reasons: it gives children an outlet from school or family stress, a place to feel important and gain confidence, and a set amount of time to exercise for their health. However, many bad things accompany the good, in the drive that sometimes pushes athletes off their own personal cliff. Sports these days are compelled by the utmost competitive nature, and the need to win; unfortunately the main focus has become results. Serious Athletes hold themselves to high standards because they were taught to be ambitious and relentless in their pursuit of a successful athletic career. Often times, the pressure is only increased by the expectations of high school coaches, club coaches, and most of all, parents. Athletes are performers, and as performances go, one of the most important aspects of the game is pleasing the audience. Curt Brown addresses the multiple reasons as to why athletes put themselves at such a high risk for injury: “Youth sports have moved out of the sandlot and into a new era of sophistication. Training and competition are more intense. Championships and scholarships are at stake. Pressure from parents and peers is ever-present. Improved equipment has prevented some injuries, but has also inspired rougher play among kids who now feel armored and invulnerable” (1992). Although derived from an article written 20 years ago, the psychology behind this epidemic has not changed and the expectations have dramatically multiplied. Besides the pressure and expectation, the obvious answer to the question behind an athletes gamble, is simple because they love the sport with every part of their being. Who you are may be defined by what you do. For an athlete to stop playing their sport could mean losing their sense of identity.

Many of the first to notice this rising epidemic of sports injury were the professionals, whom treated the victims of those circumstances. Dr. Lyle Micheli was among one of the first doctors to do something in response to the growing numbers of injuries; he founded the country’s first pediatric sports medicine clinics (C. Brown 1992). Twenty years ago Curt Brown commented, “The public is ignorant about sports injuries to kids, and the kids are the ones getting cheated because so many of these injuries could be prevented…” (1992). It is now 2016, and a significant amount of improvement has not been made to stop this pattern of injury from repeating itself. Physical Therapist Patricia O’Shea, has not only treated retired athletes in their older age, but she herself must deal with the consequences of her athletic injury as a former gymnast. O’Shea states, “As with a lot of athletes and sports injuries, now for me it’s a lifelong thing” (J. Roberts 2004). Also in reference to Jeff Robert’s Article, is the opinion of the professionals that have a knack for fixing torn ligaments and damaged tissue: Orthopedic surgeons. Roberts states, “orthopedic surgeons and pediatricians are noticing that more high school athletes are pushing their young bodies beyond the threshold of easy recovery, leading to a dramatic increase in chronic, repetitive injuries, also called overuse injuries” (2004). Just a year later, in 2005, Bill Pennington did some research as well and he found that “in interviews with more than two dozen sports-medicine doctors and researchers, one factor was repeatedly cited as the prime cause for the outbreak in overuse injuries among young athletes: specialization in one sport at an early age and the year-round, almost manic, training for it that often follows” (B. Pennington 2005). Doctors are concerned that many athletes will not get treatment for an injury simply because they don’t believe they have one; many believe it is soreness and the small cost of being an ambitious athlete (B. Pennington 2005). The major point is that doctors have seen the problem, and they are genuinely concerned for the young athletes of today’s time. When a medical professional worries about an issue, it can only be something very important and worth noticing. This growing epidemic has not hid from the observation of many doctors, whom are doing what they can to reverse this damaging pattern.

Despite the rising numbers of injuries that is still occurring, some precautions have been made in an attempt to create a safer environment for young athletes. An example of an organization that is designed around a specific sport, is the “Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC)-certified helmet by USA Hockey (the national governing body), it is a good bet players will wear such equipment because the rules prohibit participation without doing so” (D. Geier 2011). Headgear is extremely crucial to sports such as hockey, football, lacrosse, wrestling, and even water polo. The two major causes of closed head injuries include “linear acceleration and deceleration…the other type is rotational or angular acceleration” (D. Geier 2011). The idea is simple: protect your head. Many organizations have formed in response to this epidemic and have resulted in supplying various types of information regarding how to prevent specific injury. The Alliance for Youth Sports Safety was a group effort from about 30 leading health care and sports organizations, aiming to bring awareness and stop catastrophic injury such as concussions, cardiac arrest, and heat illness. Safe Kids Worldwide is a non-profit group dedicated to the safety of children in all areas of life, especially sports. Other organizations, such as the Suffolk County Police Athletic League, have “implemented the ‘Heads Up 101’ program, which includes safety guidelines for each particular sport” (D. Geier 2011). The organizations have helped create safer equipment for athletes and have freely offered information on how to prevent injury. However, once it is out there, it is up to the athlete to decide whether or not to utilize the tools that were specifically designed for them.

The problem lies there, in the hands of the athlete, because they are sometimes completely unaware of the resources available to them. This is because they are children, whom need guidance and discipline. It is the job of the parents, coaches, trainers, and athletic programs to ensure that safety is enforced onto their athletes. Much more can still be done to prevent injury in our youth sports, that is simply being ignored or not being shared properly. First, we need to educate our athletes on the risk of injury they are exposed to with their specific sport, so that they know what to watch out for. Second, we need athletic trainers at all sporting events, including practice; this means schools need a significant amount of athletic trainers if they would like to keep up with the amount of sports teams they have. “Trainers can help the athletes avoid injuries with conditioning, stretching and taping. They also play a key role in recognizing when an injury is more serious than it appears and when the athlete should receive further medical attention” (J.K. Miller 1998). Also, how our athletes are trained is crucial to their performance. Many injuries are caused as a result of improper conditioning, or some athletes just not knowing how to fall properly in the even of a tackle, simply because no one taught them. In addition to how we physically train our athletes, we must also be concerned with how we train them mentally: if something hurts, your body is crying for you to stop and fix the problem, therefore listen to your body. Also, athletes must be taught at a young age that while aggression is an important aspect of the game, they need to also realize that they have the potential of tragically effecting another athletes life, should they choose to play their sport illegally. Another preventative action to take is not allowing our athletes to follow the “one sport all year” trend. Young athletes growing bodies need rest and rehabilitation time, as was mentioned previously, and therefore must take at least 3 months of rest to allow for proper healing. The other 9 months of the year, athletes need to give their body some diversity so as not to wear out the same muscles, playing the same sports; there are different seasons for sports for a reason, being that it allows athletes to play more than one sport (B. Pennington 2005). It is imperative that these safety measures are taken into effect immediately, or many of our young athletes might share the same fate as me.

The past two years of my life could be summed up into a statistic. I ruptured my Anterior Cruciate Ligament at the age of 15 in a club soccer tournament. At the time, I didn’t even know what that ligament was, or where it was for that matter, because I never thought something like this could happen to me. People need to understand that this is not just a pattern that will eventually fix itself, it is very real; it effects the lives of countless athletes who can’t turn back the clock and take those safety measures to save themselves the time and the pain their injuries have cost them. I’m 17 years old currently, and I recently underwent knee surgery for the second time, for repeating my initial injury. The “statistics” don’t tell you the amount of physical pain you endure upon receiving an injury, or worse, the endless mental pain with the knowledge that your body is damaged and you can no longer perform in the sport that essentially defines you. My physical therapist once said to me “you’re the youngest 80 year old I know”. It’s a little funny if you choose to have a sense of humor about the situation; the situation being that I am a retired athlete, and I’m not even a legal adult. There are a multitude of activities I must refrain from doing because the fear of injuring myself again, lingers always. Suddenly, I am strictly aware of everything I can’t do, because my body is too fragile to handle it. You will never hear an athlete willingly mutter the words “I can’t” until their body refuses to listen after a critical injury. Two knee surgeries, countless tears, medical bills, and pain meds, were all the result of an opposing player that decided to play illegally. My life changed forever in a single moment, and I lost possibly the strongest part of myself and had to rebuild everything from the bottom up. Re-learning how to walk is especially excruciating when you know that you used to be the fastest player on your team. Most “has beens” are middle aged, and I’m not even halfway there. Maybe you think my case is a little special and slightly overdramatic, think again: my best friend has had three knee surgeries and is looking to receive a knee replacement within the next 5 years, and she is only 18. Its horrifically common and it must be stopped. I would hate for any athlete to endure the pain and suffering I did, when I was injured.

Athletes are injuring themselves left and right because they unknowingly neglect safety precautions that could mean the difference between excelling at their sport and cheering from the sidelines. Athletes must learn the serious epidemic they are up against, the types of injuries some of their teammates are dealt, and the physical and mental consequences of such injury. While actions have been made to stop this pattern from repeating and doubling, not enough is being done to make a large enough dent in this dangerous trend. By taking the proper precautions and becoming aware of what it is athletes are truly facing, coaches, parents, and athletes themselves can make a difference in their athletic careers; they can make those careers last.

Works Cited
Brown, C. (1992, November 1). Playing Hurt: Injuries in Youth Sports. Star tribune, p. 1S+. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from the SIRS Issues Researcher database.

Geier, D (2011, August, 3). Sobering Statistics About Youth Sports and Injuries. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from The Post and Courier Website.

Pennington, Bill. “Doctors See a Big Rise in Injuries as Athletes Train Nonstop.” New York Times [New York] 22 Feb. 2005. Retrieved March 4, 2016, from the SIRS database.

Roberts, J. (2004, January 4). The Agony of Victory. The Record, p. S1+. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from the SIRS database.

Sports Injury Facts – National Center for Sports Safety. (n.d.). Sports Safety Education – National Center for Sports Safety. Retrieved March 4, 2022.

Images of graphs & statistics credited to Safe Kids Worldwide.

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