Broken Athletes

Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty Images (Cheerleaders); Joe Patronite/The Image Bank/Getty Images (Soccer Player); Khris Hale/Icon Sportswire/Newscom (Football Players); David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images (Basketball Players); Tom Carter/Alamy (Pitcher)

An injury epidemic is spreading through high schools and youth leagues nationwide. Are you at risk?

 

Kellen Sillanpaa, 13, was on top of the world. Standing in front of hundreds of fans, the blond-haired pitcher struck out batter after batter with a scorching fastball. Some whiffed. Others watched the ball whiz by. Not one hit it out of the infield.

The crowd, understandably, was going wild.

Superstar Kellen had tossed more than 120 pitches and given up just one hit. But there was no time to enjoy the victory. It was another typical tournament weekend, and a day later, Kellen was already back on the field, warming up once again.

An eighth-grader at the time, Kellen played baseball year-round, with three or four multi-hour practices every week. He had even given up basketball so he might one day play baseball at the college level—and so far, specializing was paying off.

On this day, Kellen shook out his stiff arm—a little swollen, but nothing unusual—and grabbed a ball to toss to his friend.

Then everything fell apart.

“As soon as I threw, I felt sharp pain—like a knife—on my elbow,” says Kellen, now 19. “It hurt too much to play. I sat in the dugout for the game, hoping it wasn’t a big deal.”

What Kellen didn’t know was that this sudden pain hadn’t come out of nowhere. His years of relentless training had caused an overuse injury, a problem  now plaguing teens across the country—in sports ranging from gymnastics to soccer. Under pressure to keep up with their peers, kids are being pushed to play harder, practice more, and concentrate on a single sport. It’s a far cry from the days when youth sports were all for fun, and experts warn that this seismic cultural shift is destroying a generation of growing bodies.

“Kids used to play baseball in spring, basketball in winter, and soccer in fall, which exposed them to a variety of movements,” says Michael Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute. “Now there’s a push to specialize early. But if you play a single sport five days a week year-round, you put yourself at great risk.”

And that doesn’t just mean being benched for a game or having a little pain. You could be out for the season, end your career, or even jeopardize your ability to do normal activities, like running or jumping. These injuries don’t just affect your game—they can change your life.

 THE OVERUSE EPIDEMIC 

In recent years, overuse injuries have exploded, making up half of all teen sports injuries. But what are they, exactly? Unlike a broken bone caused by a fall, overuse injuries develop over time as you repeat an activity, like throwing a ball or swinging a racket. At first, the repetitive motions cause minor damage you may not even feel. With every hour spent on the playing field, however, you come closer to devastating consequences.

“It’s like unwinding and bending a paper clip,” says Dr. Matt Matava, a sports-medicine specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. “If you do it one time, it won’t break. But if you do it 20 times, it will snap in two.”

As a teen or preteen, you’re particularly vulnerable to these injuries, thanks to the growth spurt you experience during puberty. It creates tension and instability in your muscles and tendons, making them extra fragile—and more susceptible to pulls or strains.

But biology is just part of the story behind this dangerous epidemic. Driven by the success stories of athletes like Michael Phelps (who made the Olympic swim team at 15) and Serena Williams (who picked up her first tennis racket at 4), a multi-billion dollar industry has emerged, looking to cash in on kids’ dreams of going pro (or even just making varsity). As a result, athletes as young as 7 are working on skills at elite training facilities, attending specialized camps, and hiring private coaches.

“Kids in elementary school are being told by coaches that if they don’t play year-round, they won’t get a scholarship to college or a professional contract,” Matava says. “Don’t believe it.”

In fact, he and other experts cite studies showing you’re more likely to have success in most sports at the collegiate level if you diversify.

“Playing a variety of sports will keep you from burning out and make you a better all-around athlete,” says Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. “There’s no evidence that kids who specialize in one sport  are more likely to go pro or get a scholarship. None.”

 

 TOO MUCH INTENSITY 

After Kellen was diagnosed with Little Leaguer’s Elbow, he took almost a year off. But when he returned freshman year, his new coach pushed him hard—and the pain came back. Still, Kellen kept quiet. “If you refuse to play, you lose the respect of the coach and your teammates,” he explains. “You’re supposed to stick it out.”

What Kellen is describing is a “warrior culture”—a widespread mentality in youth sports that encourages athletes to act like soldiers going to battle. Playing through pain is considered heroic, and winning conquers all.

So every day, teens like Kellen ignore their bodies’ pleas to stop. A runner disregards the ache in his shin because he’s close to a school record, or a soccer star doesn’t mention her throbbing ankle because she’s needed in the playoffs. These athletes think the pain will go away on its own—but it rarely does. “That pain means your body is breaking down,” Bergeron warns. “At some point, you can’t play anymore.”

Kellen reached that juncture late in the season, when his coach called on him to pitch relief three days after he had thrown more than 100 pitches in a full game. Kellen knew it would kill his arm, but he did it anyway—and he paid the price.

“I had sharp pain on every single throw,” he says. “That was my breaking point.”

 

  SIDELINED FOREVER 

Kellen’s new diagnosis was a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (the band that holds together the elbow joint), and to keep playing, he needed a procedure called Tommy John surgery. Though it’s invasive and requires a long recovery, he thought he’d have the operation, go to rehab, and be back to his normal self. “Now I see how ridiculous that was,” he says.

Afterward, Kellen hit rehab full force, but he never again had the explosiveness that had made him a star. Yet he kept working, until the worst happened: He started feeling pain by his hand. Doctors said he needed another surgery.

Kellen was incredibly frustrated, but he was also tired of working so hard for a dream that seemed increasingly out of reach. “I had been in pain and under so much stress for such a long time,” he says. “I started thinking, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’”

Kellen had the second surgery, but he never returned to baseball. Now a freshman at the University of Southern California, he is still coming to terms with not being a baseball player. “When you do something for so long, it becomes a part of you,” he says.

Looking back, he wonders how things might have been different if he hadn’t pushed quite so hard.

“If I hadn’t put all of my eggs in one basket,” he says, “I could have had more years of playing baseball—and I probably would have had a lot more fun.”

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