Sports injuries in kids increase along with their dreams of scholarships or going pro
Tatum veatch, 12, no. 37, suffered a twisted pelvis
They suffer twisted pelvises, fractured growth plates, knee and elbow injuries that can lead to extensive surgeries, hip misalignments, concussions, back and ankle injuries, you name it. Playing sports can definitely wreak havoc on the bodies of young athletes.
For many, the injuries are worth it.
“I’ve just always danced,” says Natalya Knoke, 14, of Liberty, who in May suffered a leg injury as she prepared to go to a national dance competition and varsity dance camp. “When other things come up, all I want to do is dance. I feel really happy when I’m doing it. I was really upset because I missed out on a few of my favorite things.”
Trey Ziegenbein, 18, of Blue Springs, who has played baseball since he was a 5-year-old T-ball player, has undergone two Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgeries in his pitching arm. Despite this, he’s never burned out on the sport he loves.
“Even with all this physical therapy over the past couple of years, it still hasn’t grown old,” he says, adding that after he takes a year off to recuperate, he plans to be back on the mound.
Tatum Veatch, 12, of Leawood, who suffered a twisted pelvis in May while playing competitive volleyball, even played while she was undergoing physical therapy.
“I think it’s something really fun and would be really cool to do when I’m older, too,” she says.
The Growing Number
Tatum veatch, no. 37, attempts to dodge a block.
Experts say the number of sports-related injuries in kids is rising. While it’s true that playing sports can be extremely good for kids, leading to less obesity, greater self-confidence, and teamwork and leadership skills, statistics show that as many as 4 in 10 emergency room visits for children between 5 and 14 years old are for sports-related injuries. Research also shows that girls who play basketball and soccer suffer more concussions than boys do.
It didn’t use to be this way. Youth sports in America has changed in the last 40 years, when young children played a friendly “pick-up” game of baseball or basketball at the neighborhood park. Now the term “sports specialization” is a common term, referring to young athletes often beginning their competitive sports careers as early as age 7, if not sooner. They play primarily one sport and stick to it, heightening the chance of injury because of repetitive motions the sport requires.
Jason Yoder, physical therapy manager at Children’s Mercy Hospital’s Center for Sports Medicine, says kids who play baseball are getting fractures earlier and earlier, noting that what he used to see in a 16- and 17-year-old, he’s now seeing in a 10- and 11-year-old. Knee injuries are huge in soccer, particularly for females because of their bodies’ mechanical makeup. Gymnastics and cheerleading injuries include those to the back, ankles and hips.
“We’ve had 13-year-olds who have had Tommy John surgeries,” Yoder says. “They’re 13, and they’ll never pitch again. We’ve had several of those. We’ve had some really bad knee injuries — ACL injuries — where they just can’t ever go back to their sport again in high school.”
Greg Canty, medical director at Children’s Mercy’s Center for Sports Medicine, cites fear of missing out — FOMO — for the pressure young kids have for starting their athletic careers so early. He says at least 50 percent of sports injuries in junior high athletes are related to overuse because of sports specialization. In addition to injuries, young athletes who specialize too soon my become socially isolated or feel a loss of control over their lives.
“If you look at young athletes today, they’re under quite a bit of pressure,” Canty says. “They start playing earlier and earlier because they fear they’re going to miss out on their chance of success. It’s the ‘If I don’t start training at 5, then there’s no way I’m going to get a college scholarship at 19.’ But that’s not true. If you look at the number of athletes who get college scholarships, they’re miniscule. People who have already made it through the sport and are already a varsity athlete, 1 percent get a college scholarship. So that number’s already skewed because you’re not going to get a college scholarship. You should play because you enjoy the sport.”
NATALYA KNOKE, 14, SUFFERED A LEG INJURY IN MAY.
Dancing since she was 5 years old, Natalya Knoke loves it so much that only a serious injury would make her stop. Her mother, Janet Knoke, knows that such specialized attention to one sport with repetitive movements can cause injuries.
“But, I think, too, that you really have to prepare them to know that they need to take care of their body and work on stretching and other things instead of just going cold turkey into their event,” Knoke says, calling what happened to Natalya a “total fluke” because it could have happened to anybody.
“She did a leap and she landed on the floor and when she rolled out of the move, like a side roll, that’s when the injury happened,” Knoke says. “I could do that. I could be on the floor and roll over. It’s something that anybody could have done. A lot of our dancers have injuries, and there are things that happened outside of dance. I think that other sports are that way, too. I know sports are dangerous for anybody. Look at professional athletes; every day they get injured.”
Pitcher Trey Ziegenbein, who just graduated from Blue Springs High School, lost out on a baseball scholarship to the University of Arkansas this fall because of his latest elbow surgery, which was in April. He knows he was one of the lucky ones who still has a fighting chance to get a scholarship. In fact, he’s been told he can come back even stronger than before. He plans on going to Johnson County Community College while continuing his rehabilitation. If a pro baseball career is out, he plans on majoring in civil engineering or construction management from a four-year university.
“It’s every kid’s dream to go pro, but if it’s not in the cards, you still have to stay in school and go and get your degree so you can be something else,” he says philosophically. “But it’s always been a dream of mine.”
Shelli Veatch-Jaye, Tatum’s mother, says her daughter has been a competitor since she was a 6-year-old gymnast at the gym nine hours a week.
“She’s always had that commitment,” Veatch-Jaye says. “She’s always been that determined, competitive kid, and so it’s easy to support her when she takes the initiative and is the one who wants to go and doesn’t complain. That’s my theory: as soon as she starts complaining, it’s not fun anymore, so we’re done.”
TREY ZIEGENBEIN, 18, HAS HAD TWO ELBOW SURGERIES.
While most parents would agree that fun should be the name of the game, there are those who dream of their son becoming the next Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer or their daughter becoming the next beach volleyball champ Kerri Walsh Jennings. Coaches can be equally influential and demanding, adding to the child’s stress.
Seth Oliphant, a fellowship-trained physician in sports medicine with Saint Luke’s Spine and Sports Medicine Clinic, says children and adolescents should be learning a variety of athletic skills, what he calls the ABCs — agility, balance, coordination — before self-selecting or specializing in any one sport.
“A lot of people who go on to play professional sports or college sports are multi-sport athletes, and maybe their first exposure to sports wasn’t in the sport that they ended up playing in college,” he says, citing basketball forward Gordon Hayward, who was a tennis star in high school, as an example. “A lot of these athletes will self-select as they get older into a sport that fits their habitus and their abilities.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, current evidence suggests delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until the child is 15 or 16 years old will minimize the risks and will lead to a higher likelihood of success. Yoder, of Children’s Mercy, advocates that children play a variety of different sports so as to avoid overuse.
“You’ve kind of got to pick a middle ground because you have this medical side of things,” he says. “STOP Sports Injuries and other websites tell us it’s not good to specialize; it’s not good to throw too many pitches; it’s not good to play soccer year-round. We know this information medically, but then you’ve got this cultural part over here, where we think it’s the norm for these families that they have to be involved and be on the elite team in order to have the ability to play at a high level. You’ve got these two worlds, and you have to kind of be in the middle because if you tell them, ‘Don’t do it,’ then they may not agree with you and you might create divide and they won’t listen and they’ll just shut down. You got to figure out a way to educate them…and do the best you can with it. If I have a soccer player that I know is going to play year-round and I’m not going to win the battle of making them play another sport, I’ll try to educate them on how to train and modify what they do to decrease their risk of injury.
“It’s tough. There’s no other way to sugar coat it. It’s a freakin’ tough battle to try to figure out how to meet those worlds together because medically we know it’s wrong, and we know we can’t continue at this rate because the injuries keep going up like crazy. But then there’s the whole cultural part of it with the competitiveness and these families and these organizations. It’s a business to them.”
And for parents who have spent thousands of dollars for their kids to play in a variety of clubs or travel teams, the message can be hard to swallow.
“Parents want what’s best for their children, but a lot of times children really want to perform well for their parents,” says Oliphant of Saint Luke’s. “And so if they feel a lot of downward pressure from a mentor or parent, they may try to push through some injuries. So try to remember, especially at a young age, that sports should be fun. You shouldn’t be training to win until you’re more mature and developed.”
And one of the most important things kids should do is to take breaks from their sports.
“Give kids time to be kids,” Oliphant stresses. “Let them play with their friends. Don’t have them on the road all the time at different tournaments and events so they can develop socially and emotionally as well as be good athletes and well-rounded individuals.”