Young athletes’ bodies are the casualties of this $19 billion industry

By Ken Reed

I’ve been writing about the dangers of the professionalization of youth sports for more than a decade (e.g., single-sport specialization at a young age, overuse injuries, anxiety and depression in young athletes, entrepreneurs trying to make a living off vulnerable kids, etc.)

So, it is especially frustrating to discover that ACL reconstruction surgeries in youth athletes have increased five-fold — five fold! — in the last decade. The professionalization of youth sports trend is definitely going in the wrong direction.

The current episode of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel has an excellent, albeit scary, segment on the professionalization of youth sports and the serious injuries that result.

HBO reports that youth sports is now a $19 billion industry. One of the results of the over-commercialization of youth sports is pressure on kids to specialize in one sport at 10 years old or younger. Specialization often means 11 months a year, or more, of non-stop, daily training in a particular sport. It also means expensive club teams traveling to big youth sports tournaments. In addition, it can entail private personal training sessions on top of team practices.

Increasingly, these demanding sport specialization schedules mean kids are pushing their young bodies until they give out. Orthopedic surgeons now report that ACL and other major surgeries are becoming common place for athletes ages 8-18.

One surgeon in the HBO special said the injuries, and resultant surgeries, are the result of “trying to be professional athletes at age nine.”

HBO reported that research reveals that kids that specialize in a single sport are more than twice as likely to have serious injuries than kids that don’t.

Young athletes that diversify their sports participation have better health outcomes. Moreover, multi-sport athletes also end up doing better in the sport they ultimately choose to focus on in later years than the athletes who specialize early.

Youth sports coaches, administrators, entrepreneurs, and even some parents, that promote early sports specialization are pushing a dangerous illusion.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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