ST. LOUIS (AP) — It starts out innocently enough.
You buy your kindergartner hockey skates, or a soccer ball. Maybe a T-ball bat. You get involved in a community or church recreation league.
The first year plays out like the feel-good parts of the movie “Parenthood.” There’s no stealing bases or basketballs. The nets are low, the fields are half-sized. The kids fist-pump when they make a goal — sometimes on the wrong net. Nobody keeps score.
The next year, they get better. They make plays. They pass the puck. They catch the ball. So you form your own team and coach. You win some games. The next season, you consider registering the team with a club.
And, just like that, you’re hooked.
You have no clue that in as little as three years you could be caught up in a dizzying and expensive youth sports scene — a scene that’s playing out not only in St. Louis but in most metropolitan areas in the country.
It’s a scene fraught with overuse and even traumatic injuries in young bodies still growing and developing bone and muscle — so much so that medical associations, athletic trainers and even professional athletes are speaking out against it.
More than 3.5 million kids 14 and under are treated annually for sports injuries, and the numbers are increasing. More than half of all youth sports injuries are preventable. In about half the cases, the injuries are associated with overuse, often linked with the growing trend of children specializing in one sport and playing year-round.
Despite the warnings, the options to practice and play have exploded over the past decade. Competition now ratchets up before middle school, with select teams in clubs and leagues. And there is pressure to specialize in one sport very early and play it year-round, lest your child get left behind.
“This whole dynamic has become big business at this point. It’s moving in that direction, and it’s not going to stop,” said Rick Strickland, owner of the youth baseball club franchise St. Louis Pirates.
Baseball pitcher Tommy John considers it a racket, with parents being led by the nose to spend with promises of scholarships and better performance.
John is tired of hearing about kids getting his namesake elbow repair surgery from pitching and throwing too much. He’s now the spokesman for the STOP Sports Injuries campaign sponsored by nearly a dozen medical associations. Its supporters advise against children playing the same sport year-round without downtime.
“I asked parents who do this, ‘Who is the best pitcher in MLB?’ They say, ‘Well, probably Justin Verlander.’ I say, ‘You think Justin Verlander plays baseball year-round? If he’s the best, why wouldn’t he do it to get better?'”
Wherever you stand, parents with kids who love sports are caught in the middle trying to make responsible choices.
Angela Andrasko of Webster Groves sees it with her firstborn, Miles. People were noticing his knack for athletics. A basketball and a baseball coach both suggested to Andrasko that Miles pick a sport and specialize. She declined.
Last summer, a coach from an opposing baseball team shook Miles’ hand on the field just before the start of the first inning in a Florissant tournament. The coach wouldn’t let go and kept talking. Andrasko looked on, concerned. Turns out, the coach was hoping to recruit Miles to his team. Andrasko joked he should first talk to Miles’ agent: her.
“I’m flattered that someone would think Miles is talented, because he works very hard at baseball, and he loves it so much,” she said. “But it’s also a daunting thing as well. I think, ‘OK, some adult is interested in approaching my kid.’
“But he’s 8.”
Everything you remembered about youth sports when you grew up has changed. Forget the eight-game season of the middle schooler, though they still exist in some recreation leagues. Heck, forget the once universal dream of making varsity in high school. In some sports, particularly club hockey and soccer, some high-level club teams forbid players from competing on their high school teams. The level of competition is too low.
Now there are a vast array of year-round club choices in almost every sport: hockey, baseball, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, swimming, lacrosse. You’ve probably seen the stickers on the rear windows of minivans and SUVs: Scott Gallagher and Metro Strikers, Gateway, Rockets, Americans, Pirates, Prospects.
There are annual tryouts for elite and traveling teams for kids in elementary school. Fees for select clubs can be upward of $1,000 for kids as young as 6. There are hours of weekly evening practices in training facilities in remote industrial parks. Mandatory spirit gear. Pressure for private instruction. Travel tournaments on weekends.
Parents admit the time and money spent shuttling kids to competition and practices appear over-the-top. Robert Goldson of Ladue said he’s in for $2,500 a year for a swim club team for his two girls, 8 and 12, for membership, training and equipment. They swim three to four times a week, year-round.
Most parents point to the benefits: the discipline of balancing sports with school, the strong instruction, the friends and the fun of traveling over a weekend where kids make human pyramids or play hot box in the hallways of a hotel. That points to the growing social component in this.
“There’s the pressure for the social status of your kid,” Goldson said. “I think that’s why people feel pressure to get their kids up and running, I think they want to make sure their kids are included.”
All this is happening amid escalating sports injuries.
An alarming April study presented to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine studied 1,206 “specialized” athletes ages 8 to 18. Nearly two-thirds had had an injury, and more than half had suffered an injury from overuse — 139 of them serious. The authors of the study concluded that specialization resulted in “higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and quitting sports at a young age.”
Jim Hoffman, an owner of Advance Training and Rehab, deals with injured young athletes. He describes the youth sports scene as a “hamster wheel” that burns kids out.
“At some point, I want to ask the parents, ‘What have you really enjoyed doing in your life that you’ve had to do three hours a day? If you did something two to three hours a day, every day, would you still enjoy it three years later?'”
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com
AP MISSOURI PANORAMA