Saturday, May 25, 2013

Will They Tell You When It Hurts?

Last week I touched on the overwhelming pressure that is being heaped upon developing young athletes. [1] A recent national survey lends strong evidence to support this opinion:

- 59 percent of young athletes have voiced concern that they expect to be injured during an upcoming game.

- Half of the children surveyed said they hide injuries so that they can continue to play. 42 percent of kids who have been hurt during the game say they were called foul names if they sat out — some by their own parents.

- 16 percent say that either they tried to hurt another player during the game, or one of their teammates did.

- Some children said that their coaches, teammates, and/or parents have encouraged them to play while injured — 11 percent of children in the survey were offered money and/or gifts to play with an injury. [2]

I won’t rehash last weeks article here but suffice it to say kids are feeling more pressure to perform at earlier ages than ever before and they just aren’t equipped mentally or emotionally to carry that burden. Youth sports should be pure joy for kids and yet it is very likely many of them compete with some sense of fear brought on by the threat of physical injury, failure to perform, or falling short of others expectations.

I want to narrow my focus this week on one particular aspect from the highlighted survey and that is the issue of kids hiding injuries to stay in the game.

If you watch professional sports inevitably broadcasters routinely praise athletes for playing in pain, throwing out phrases like “he/she is a warrior!” So there is no doubt that athletes are glorified for being tough and overcoming injuries. I mean what kid wouldn’t like to be known as a “warrior?” As parents and coaches we definitely can’t control what is coming from the media but we should counsel kids on the difference between playing with minor pain or injury.

Playing through a little soreness could be fine as long as body mechanics aren’t compromised. The best strategy is to use your eyes. What are they showing you? You should have a good idea of how the athlete normally moves. If they seem to be a step behind, dragging not moving with the same fluidity of motion chances are they are favoring or attempting to mask an injury. This would be the time to pull the child from competition before the altered movement patterns lead to a bigger problem. Of course when coaching kids between the ages of 10 ½ to 18 with a peak around 14, the regression in movement quality may be complicated by a growth spurt.  However altered movement quality resulting from an injury will usually be more glaring while the poor movement resulting from a growth spurt would be subtler and would present evidence gradually over time.  It’s as important in my mind to pull the reigns back on young athletes during the growth spurt. Rather than “cranking” up the intensity of their training/competition it would serve them better over the long haul to ease them through this stage with more basic training activities.

Youth sports are as competitive as ever and many kids may fear losing their spot/playing time. Again this comes back to the performance based youth sport culture that currently dominates the landscape. If the emphasis were where it should be on long-term improvement kids would likely feel less pressure to hide injuries out of fear of losing playing time. And coaches schooled in the art of long term athletic development would feel less urgency to win and instead focus on the needs of their athletes’.

In youth sport, there are kids who view themselves in absolute terms. They use "all or nothing" concepts such as being fast or slow, strong, or weak, fat or thin. Everything is categorized as successful or unsuccessful, good or bad.

Such thinking leads to labeling. Negative labels (“he’s not tough”) are detrimental because they are internalized and become permanent thoughts that linger in a young athlete's mind during training/competition. The end result is a poor self-concept, high levels of stress, and low future expectations regarding performance.

A young athlete will do just about anything to avoid acquiring one of these labels and that includes not revealing when they are truly hurting.

If we want the next generation to embrace an active lifestyle for the rest of their lives we have to put their needs ahead of any plastic trophies. Sports should be used to develop qualities that will enhance their values and character. When that is the focus championships, scholarships and trophies will be the inevitable result.

Phil Loomis
Youth Athletic Development Specialist


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Youth Sports Are Red Hot...

You may have heard of the terrible tragedy in Utah a few weeks ago a 17-year-old boy is accused of fatally punching a soccer referee. The boy was charged last Wednesday in juvenile court with committing a homicide. [1] This happened at a recreational game after the referee called a foul and issued a yellow card on the accused boy.

A week doesn’t pass by when I speak with parents or have directly observed myself extremely unsportsmanlike behavior from kids, coaches and spectators alike right here in Southeastern Oakland County.  While the temperature outside is just starting to warm-up the climate in youth sports is red-hot!

Shouldn’t we be using youth sports as a tool to develop character qualities such as determination, integrity, and discipline rather than an overt emphasis on winning and putting up numbers? While the above example is extreme there is no doubt in my mind we are placing way to much pressure on kids to perform rather than placing the emphasis where it should be on long-term and gradual improvement. Not only will this method take the insane pressure off kids but it also provides the opportunity to learn from their mistakes rather than being devastated by them.

School sports in America should be built on a strong educational foundation. For example, the mission statement of the National Federation of State High School Associations indicates that it “will promote participation and sportsmanship to develop good citizens through interscholastic activities which provide equitable opportunities, positive recognition and learning experiences to students while maximizing the achievement of educational goals” (NFHS Mission Statement). [2]

Mission statements make good talking points but actions speak far louder than words in this case. Youth sports at all levels need leaders that are brave enough to draw a line in the sand by not allowing little things to chip away at the integrity of the team for the sake of winning a relatively meaningless game in the big picture of a child’s life.

An excellent example of one such leader just happens to be the current manager of the St. Louis Cardinals of Major League Baseball. I thought his insight on this subject was terrific and wanted to share it with you:

Imagine that you are in the most stressful situation that you could possibly be in with all of your family and friends watching. Imagine that you are asked to do something that is so physically difficult that most people fail three times more often than they succeed. Then imagine that the people that you respect and admire the most in the world are screaming at the top of their lungs at you while you are trying to do this difficult task. Sound Tough? Well... welcome to the world of youth baseball.

I believe that this issue has stunned me more than any other issue we have talked about. I guess that I must have grown up in a cocoon or something, but I played hundreds of games as a kid, and there were never parents and coaches screaming like they are now. I guess that it is due to the pressure of trying to get your kid the scholarship, or the pride of having them accomplish something that you were not able to. But, whatever the reason, it is ugly...Just ask your kids.

It had been a while since I was at a youth game, and when I showed up, I couldn't believe what was going on. There were moms and dads screaming at Johnny Jr. to "get his elbow up" and to "stop swinging at the high ones." The coach on third base was telling him that his "elbow was too high" and the first base coach were telling him the old "keep your eye on the ball." Poor kid didn't know which end of the bat to grab by the end of it all. I couldn't help but feel sorry for all of them, because they were all trying to do their best, but failing miserably.

As I talk to everyone in the game from current players, to Hall of Famers from our past, I always ask them, "How did your parents act at your games?" It is overwhelming and near unanimous that they never heard a word from them. A couple, myself included, would hear a distinct whistle, voice, or clap that they recognized after they did something well. But there was never any screaming or yelling, or instructing coming from their parents during the game. Coincidence that all the people I talked to had the same kind of parents? I don't think so.

My point? Let's get back to the fact that less than 1% of the kids that play youth sports go on to play that sport in high school, let alone, collegiately or professionally. Let's talk about the incredibly fortunate ones who do make it all the way to the highest level. They will tell you that the best thing their parents did for them was to be a silent source of encouragement during the game, and an ice cream buyer after. For the 99% who are just playing for fun, please let them have fun. If you think that yelling (even encouraging words) and mechanical instructions are helping your child, the odds are that you are making it more difficult, and more stressful for them. They have the rest of their lives to learn about pressure and stress. Let them have fun. You will be amazed how much more enjoyable the game will be for you, when you take the pressure off yourself to be worlds best hitting instructor, and to just be a spectator, and fan of your child doing something that they love.

Mike Matheny

I have a philosophical dilemma that I have struggled to reconcile for many years when it comes to who the best coaches in this country are. On the one hand I think coaches like Matheny are wasting a great deal of their skill on professionals who have already mastered their craft. Conversely I know of untold numbers of coaches whom toil in relative obscurity and are making a tremendous impact on the lives of young people and that influence extends well beyond the playing field. The more I think about this I believe the most well known coaches aren’t necessarily the best. In fact the men and women doing the best coaching you likely have never heard of and they probably like it that way.

Phil Loomis
Youth Athletic Development Specialist

Final Thought

“We all must take personal responsibility for our own behavior. Part of the fun of sports is the emotional thrills it brings, but we must not let our emotions get the best of us and act inappropriately. Moreover, we should not support the products endorsed by professional athletes or teams that display inappropriate behavior on a regular basis.”

Daniel Gould, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
Michigan State University [3]


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Are We To Clean...And is it Harming Kids?

Parents are reporting more skin and food allergies in their children, a government survey found.

Experts aren't sure what's behind the increase. Could it be that children are growing up in households so clean that it leaves them more sensitive to things that can trigger allergies? Or are mom and dad paying closer attention to rashes and reactions, and more likely to call it an allergy?

"We don't really have the answer," said Dr. Lara Akinbami of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the senior author of the new report released Thursday.

The CDC survey suggests that about 1 in 20 U.S. children have food allergies. That's a 50 percent increase from the late 1990s. For eczema and other skin allergies, it's 1 in 8 children, an increase of 69 percent.

Experts believe there is a real — and unexplained — increase going on.

One of the more popular theories is "the hygiene hypothesis," which says that exposure to germs and parasites in early childhood somehow prevent the body from developing certain allergies.

The hypothesis argues that there is a downside to America's culture of disinfection and overuse of antibiotics. The argument has been bolstered by a range of laboratory and observational studies, including some that have found lower rates of eczema and food allergies in foreign-born children in the U.S.

There could be other explanations, though. Big cities have higher childhood allergy rates, so maybe some air pollutant is the unrecognized trigger, said Dr. Peter Lio, a Northwestern University pediatric dermatologist who specializes in eczema. [1]

Some suspect the change has something to do with the evolution in how foods are grown and produced, like the introduction of genetically modified foods, and heavy use of growth hormones and antibiotics in the conventional livestock and dairy industry. In fact the excessive use of antibiotics on livestock has lead to real problems with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. [2] Also consider the wide and ever expanding array of food additives and preservatives that occur in such minute amounts they aren’t required to be labeled falling under the nebulous note of “natural flavors.”

Go to any school these days and when you walk in they will inevitably have a pump of anti-bacterial gel right inside the door. Not to mention it’s a standard accessory on every kid’s backpack. There is no doubt that in our culture everything is scrubbed down and heavily sanitized.

Consider that when I was a kid my dad would literally go out milk our goat and drink the milk straight. I thought he was crazy of course but that’s what he grew up on and the man has a gut of steel. If you produce raw milk in this state and try to sell it you’re in big trouble with the law. Raw milk advocates say it is the perfect life sustaining food but for the vast majority who has never been exposed to it, it’s not a good idea to start now. The milk we buy from the story is basically a dead food that has been so heavily processed it has little resemblance to the raw milk that comes from the cow.

And there in lies the rub in regard to the food industry and government oversight of the industry. In an effort to eliminate food borne illness the food has become an inert mass of sterilized foodstuff. Our slate is so clean that if we get a speck on it we don’t react well.

I grew up on a farm and as kids were always running around barefooted and rolling around in the grass and dirt. We were definitely exposing ourselves to the environment building not only strong bodies but immune systems as well. And I have been reading plenty in recent months on the benefits to your health of walking/playing outside barefoot, aka grounding (topic for another time). [3]

A couple of weeks ago I touched on the future of the food industry and some of the rather odd products that are on the horizon. [4] Consider that the quick serve food industry like KFC is introducing new varieties of boneless chicken and this is likely only a first step in a fairly scary trend.

Scientists are working toward engineering meat from stem cells and literally growing it in test tubes. Quick serves like McDonalds already have introduced boneless chicken in the form of the McNugget (which by the way is only 50% chicken, the other 50% is nothing but binders, flavorings, and other synthetic ingredients). [5]

The strategy by KFC and others may be to establish boneless chicken as normal and when you consider how rarely we eat the whole chicken these days, instead opting for the breasts, this won’t seem all that strange. This will make it easier for the processed food industry to “sub” in the meat that’s been engineered in the lab without the consumer even knowing it. I know it seems far-fetched and you may expect government oversight to restrict them but please remember at this time genetically modified foods do not have to be labeled in the U.S.

Have you noticed recently that a lot of quick serves are offering boneless chicken wings? Given the information above it makes you wonder what you are really eating…

Check out this recent headline:

Abbott Laboratories shareholders reject proposal to remove GMOs from infant formula.

An Abbott Laboratories shareholder proposal to remove genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its natural products - including its Similac infant formula- was recently rejected. Infants are being exposed to this stuff at such a young age that it is hardly surprising food allergies are becoming so prevalent in kids. [6]

It would be easy to become discouraged and throw your hands up in frustration over not being able to trust what is in the food that you and your family eat. But I urge you to keep it in perspective, because we all have to eat!  Unfortunately it just isn’t practical to raise our own meat and grow our own vegetables, so we have to test the marketplace to obtain our food. If we have an occasional McNugget it’s not going to devastate our health but I do believe it’s extremely important not to bury our heads in the sand. As long as you are aware of what is coming and what’s really out there you can prepare yourself to make the best decisions possible when it comes to feeding your family.

Phil Loomis
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist


Saturday, May 4, 2013

When kids do this it's like walking a tight rope without a net...

Young athletes who specialize in one sport and train intensively for that sport have a significantly higher risk of stress fractures and other severe overuse injuries, even when compared with other injured athletes, according to the largest clinical study of its kind. [1]

At the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) meeting in San Diego, sports medicine physicians from Loyola University Medical Center presented the study titled “Risks of Specialized Training and Growth in Young Athletes.”

Among the study’s findings:

·      Young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport – such as a 12-year-old who plays tennis 13 or more hours a week – were 70 percent more likely to experience serious overuse injuries than other injuries.

·      Young athletes were more likely to be injured if they spent more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they spent in unorganized free play — for example, playing 11 hours of organized soccer each week, and only 5 hours of free play such as pick-up games with friends.

·      Athletes who suffered serious injuries spent an average of 21 hours per week in total physical activity (organized sports, gym and unorganized free play), including 13 hours in organized sports. By comparison, athletes who were not injured participated in less activity – 17.6 hours per week in total physical activity, including only 9.4 hours in organized sports.

·      Injured athletes scored 3.3 on researchers’ six-point sports-specialization scale. Uninjured athletes scored 2.7 on the specialization scale. (On the sports specialization scale, an athlete is given one point for each of the following: Trains more than 75 percent of the time in one sport; trains to improve skill or misses time with friends; has quit other sports to focus on one sport; considers one sport more important than other sports; regularly travels out of state; trains more than eight months a year or competes more than six months per year.

One of the more unique findings in the study was that young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport – such as a 12-year-old who plays tennis 13 or more hours a week – were 70 percent more likely to experience serious overuse injuries than other injuries.

As a result the sport medicine physicians who published the study recommend that young athletes should not spend more hours per week than their age playing sports.

Another author of the study said kids are more susceptible to stress injuries in the back if they are training too hard and long before their bodies have fully developed.

“The chance of a full recovery can be as low as 25 to 50 percent,” he said. That can then lead to slipped discs and other back problems when they become adults.

I understand the mindset that if a child focuses on one sport that they’ll become more proficient at it while logging the necessary hours to master the desired skills. However this directly contradicts how a young child develops. They thrive and need variety to develop optimally. By investing all their eggs in one basket you will leave them vulnerable to volatility. And your child will experience plenty of ups and downs on their way to sport proficiency, better to have a broad athletic foundation that they can access to navigate the chaos.

It is important to understand that all sport specific skills are merely coordinated elements of basic athleticism and movement proficiency. If a child never is allowed to develop the fundamentals of movement they will not have the tools necessary to build more advanced skills. Resist the urge to push kids to soon even if it seems like it’s what they want to do.  Do you let them have cookies and soda whenever they want it?  As leaders of young people we need to step in and apply the brakes when necessary.

Diversity is the key to developing robust athletes (in my mind all children are athletic or have the potential to be even if they don’t play sports). Back in the day the best athletes played multiple sports. And each season allowed the development of new skills that added to the overall athleticism of the child. Mastery of a sport skill is much more difficult if not impossible without tremendous overall athleticism. It may feel risky to not have your child specialize while all of the other kids are doing it. But the biggest risk of all (as the highlighted study clearly demonstrates) it turns out is navigating youth athletic development on the razor thin high wire routine that is early specialization.

By the Numbers

Between 2010 and 2013, physicians enrolled 1,206 athletes ages 8 to 18 between who had come in for sports physicals or treatment for injuries.

There were 859 total injuries, including 564 overuse injuries, in cases in which the clinical diagnosis was recorded. The overuse injuries included 139 serious injuries such as stress fractures in the back or limbs, elbow ligament injuries and osteochondral injuries (injuries to cartilage and underlying bone). Such serious injuries can force young athletes to the sidelines for one to six months or longer.

The study confirmed preliminary findings, reported earlier, that specializing in a single sport increases the risk of overall injury, even when controlling for an athlete’s age and hours per week of sports activity.

Do many high school athletes earn athletics scholarships?

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA):

Very few in fact. According to recent statistics, about 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college. This small number means high school student-athletes and their parents need to have realistic expectations about receiving an athletic scholarship to play sports in college. Academic, not athletic, achievement is the most reliable path to success in life.


Additional Reading

Check out this insightful article from a long time Detroit Free Press amateur sports writer, with his take on the early sport specialization culture: