Local writer draws line for youth sports

From the Little League parent to burnout in 14-year-olds, the United States has always negotiated a delicate balance between the benefits of youth athletics and the risks involved when they become all-encompassing.

Mark Hyman, a Baltimore-based journalist who writes about sports for BusinessWeek and other publications, addresses the issue in his most recent book, “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids” (Beacon Press).

Hyman discussed his work with The Catholic Review.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

A. In 2004, I wrote an article for BusinessWeek about an alarming increase in the number of teenagers undergoing Tommy John (reconstructive shoulder) Surgery. The surgeon who developed the operation in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, never intended for it to be used to fix the arms of high school kids. There was no reason to think pitchers so young would need such a serious operation.

In the article, I took coaches and parents to task. Where had they been while these kids were using up their elbows? Two years later, my son Ben was pitching in a high school game and suffered the same injury. Right there, I realized I wasn’t the A-plus sports dad I thought I was. It was one event among several that got me interested in writing the book.

Q. Has youth sports become a big business?

It’s huge. We spend billions of dollars each year on kids’ sports – equipment, uniforms, travel, fitness, coaches, summer camps, private lessons. It’s not just families. Chattanooga, Tenn. just invested about $12 million on a softball stadium in the hope it will attract girls’ tournaments.

Q. Have you found greater danger for burnout in individual, as opposed to team, sports?

A. I don’t know of any medical research that points one way or the other. Based on my interviews, the critical factor is the attitude of coaches and parents. The kids who turned off to sports often were the ones who were pushed hard. If there’s one idea this book communicates, I hope it’s that one.

Q. Have you seen any negative effects from Title IX, the federal mandate requiring equal opportunity for females?

A. No negative comes close to overshadowing the positive – full participation for girls and women. The year Title IX took effect, 1972, boys playing high school sports outnumbered girls 12-to-1. Today, for every three boys playing for a high school team there are two girls. Some day, the numbers will be equal.

There certainly have been negatives. Girls’ sports have become very goal-oriented just like boys’ sports. Some parents are doing whatever it takes for their daughters to become college athletes. Once you commit to this path, it’s easy to lose your bearings.

Q. What’s the harm in a child playing a sport year-round? Isn’t that preferable to inactivity?

A. The harm from playing one sport year-round depends on the age of the child, the sport and what’s meant by playing year-round. The greatest concern is kids suffering overuse injuries. A baseball pitcher who throws more than eight months a year is at five times the risk of an injury leading to surgery than one who doesn’t exceed eight months.

Inactivity isn’t the answer either, of course. The challenge for kids – and parents – is to find a happy medium.

Q. In the age of the “soccer mom,” will we ever see a return to children playing without adult supervision?

A. Kids still play on their own. Wiffleball in the backyard, shooting hoops in the driveway. Those things haven’t disappeared and let’s hope they never will. I do think that sports for kids, supervised by adults, are here to stay, however. There are too many adults having too much fun. I loved coaching my son’s youth baseball team. You couldn’t have chased me away from the field with a fire hose.

“Until It Hurts” is available at www.beacon.org and wherever books are sold.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.