By Kenan Trebincevic.
I applaud Michelle Obama’s recent fitness campaign, “Let’s Move,” to combat child obesity. However, as everyone goes back to school, we have to remember that kids should also exercise moderation in exercising. Injuries from overtraining have been on a steep rise in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Over the past two decades, the number of youths in organized sports has grown exponentially. Between 30 and 40 million youngsters ages 6-18 participate in athletics. Unfortunately, this is causing youthful injuries to rise as well.
As a 34-year-old Manhattan physical therapist, I’ve seen many repeat offenders who keep coming back for the same injury throughout their high school soccer or Little League careers. As someone who once played sports all year long, I wondered why I never had such repetitive stress injuries, ligament ruptures, or stress fractures. Growing up in Bosnia—where my father was an athletic trainer—my brother and I never hurt ourselves athletically. In retrospect, I realize it was because my dad encouraged us to be careful and diverse. We never spent hours on the same sport in the same day. Instead we swam, ran, shot hoops, and took karate lessons.
My family was exiled during the Balkan War in 1993, and I partly attribute our miraculous survival to the healthy eating and exercise practices my parents taught us. Our family was lucky to be sponsored by the Connecticut Interfaith Council. After school in Stratford and later at college in Hartford, I ran, played baseball, football, and soccer and did weight training. None of my friends or former teammates had repetitive problems or needed Physical Therapy either.
Overuse injuries are responsible for half of all damage done to middle and high school students. 62 percent occur during practice. This is partly because parents and coaches don’t insist on using the same safety precautions while practicing as they do during the game. 20 percent of children ages 8-12 and 45 percent of 13-14 year olds will have arm pain during a single baseball season.
It’s important that doctors, coaches, and physical therapists work together to identify at-risk players. Dr. Andrew Price, a New York pediatric orthopedist colleague I admire, suggested the culprit responsible for the rising harm is sport specialization. This obsessive focus on one sport is a growing epidemic responsible for an estimated two million injuries and 500,000 doctor visits each year. Over-specialization happens when a student decides not to change up their workout or play multiple sports, but only stick to the same daily routine to excel at one. Playing only football, hockey, basketball, soccer, or swimming—in year-round training competitions—is becoming more common.
Most don’t realize that, depending on the sport, only 0.2% to 0.5% of athletic aspirants ever make it to the professional level. Unfortunately, the media over-covers elite athletes like LeBron James, emphasizing his $450 million worth as the NBA star of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet at 30, James has had recent knee and back injuries that could, with one bad step or a fall, force him into retirement before he’s 35. Famous players aren’t necessarily the best role models for all youngsters to follow.
The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses that young athletes who participate in a variety of sports have fewer injuries and play longer than those specializing before puberty. Studies suggest that one should not specialize until age 13 or 14. Yet kids as young as nine come to me for perpetual shoulder and knee injuries induced by continual activity, inadequate training, and improper warm-ups.
Being a multi-sport athlete helps develop mobility, stability, and strength in both the upper and lower body. However, choose two sports that require different skills, such as hockey and swimming. I used to divide my summer workouts between outdoor basketball, baseball, and football. I loved soccer, swam with friends, roller-bladed, and played tag. This well-balanced array of activities gave my joints and muscles adequate rest and kept me fit and injury-free decades later. Like the Obamas—both in good shape in their fifties—the goal should be overall health and longevity.
Kenan Trebincevic is a physical therapist at Performance Physical Therapy in Midtown, and is a co-author with Susan Shapiro of the memoir, “The Bosnia List” (Penguin 2014).