On Tuesday’s Ten-Minute Topic we discussed the epidemic rise of youth sports injuries and what parents need to be thinking about and doing to protect our kids. We were joined by Dr. Tommy John, who has dedicated his life’s work to helping young athletes with performance and injury prevention. Dr. John has devised a 4-prong attack, RETHINK, REBUILD, REPLENISH and RECOVER. This post will focus on RETHINK and we will have him back for separate discussions for each of the other topics.
ILTWYP: What is causing such a dramatic rise in youth sports injuries?
Dr. John: So, it’s not single faceted. There’s not a single sport out there that is responsible. Concussions are up a couple of hundred percent, ACL surgeries have increased three percent per year over the last 20 years in six- to 18-year-olds, Tommy John Surgeries 50 percent, with more than half happening to athletes between 15 and 19 years old. There’s so much going on in all sports. So it’s not a sport specific problem. It’s a cultural problem that we’re looking at. The soft-tissue repair industry, surgeries, is expected to hit 17 Billion by the year 2022 with the main source being youth sports participation.
ILTWYP: What are the three real causes behind the injury epidemic?
Dr. John: 1) The business of youth sports. It’s an over $15,000,000,000 a year industry. 2) The American lifestyle, the American dream that we want it now, we want it fast. Who cares how long it sustains; we’re over-stimulated, less aware, over coached and under developed. It’s a culmination of all these. 3) Parents. Parents need to realize they are pushing and driving too hard and they need to learn how to help create a healthier athlete.
ILTWYP: What are coaches doing wrong?
Dr. John: We want to be bigger, faster, stronger, right now and there is no natural progression to develop because it takes time. All we’re doing is getting the athlete to express their best self earlier, and then they can’t sustain. They’re also over-analyzing skill. They’re putting so much pressure on skill and not the chain of development leading up to the skill. I equate it to throwing a baby down a hallway and yelling at it to run.
ILTWYP: What is the natal reflex our kids hold onto that’s holding them back?
Dr. John: So, there are reflexes that are ingrained innately in the body to help survival in the early part of life until we acquire some of the skill sets that will allow us to survive on our own. One of those happens to be the sensitivity strip of the spine. It’s supposed to be diminished. Integrated as the child grows. But we see some 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds in my office and they’ve retained it and even in some 50- or 60-year-olds it’s still present. It means that there are patterns in the brain that aren’t developed. So coordination, balance, agility, also cognitive retention are being affected because these reflexes aren’t integrated. And one of the big ones is when the chairs at the schools stimulate the back/spine of the kids, they’re fidgeting and they’re told to sit still and now they’re labeled with some sort of attention syndrome and all they are doing is just responding normally to something that should’ve been integrated well before then.
ILTWYP: How can you measure everything you need to know about an athlete regardless of age, gender, or sport?
Dr. John: I’ve worked with a lot of NFL, NBA and NHL players and you see that they’re able to perform at that level from a lot of things that are God given, but they can’t sustain it. There are certain very basic tests to see if a person has developed the basic steps and strength since childhood to maintain a high output of performance. For example, a simple pull-up test, a plank across, crawl kind of patterning, test standing on one leg. There’s a lot of these things that, again, you don’t necessarily have to be a professional, but I’m giving to parents to be able to evaluate their athlete and get an idea of where we’re starting from and then a reevaluation later on to see how they’re progressing. And a chance to go back to some of the basics if they have missed a part of their development.
ILTWYP: How do high tech devices and cell phones sabotage young athletes?
Dr. John: It’s not just the inactivity, although that’s part of it, but it’s the bits of information that are coming through cell phones into kids’ eyes and their brains are having to interpret these bits of information that increase a fight or flight response. The fight or flight response increases the immune system and takes it away from what it’s supposed to be doing – fighting bacteria and viruses, cancer cells and repair tissue. So technology and staring at a phone is fatiguing the person in ramping up and lowering the immune system and it’s more profound than just, my kid’s kind of hunched over and he’s inactive. It goes far beyond that.
ILTWYP: How are parents’ desire to help their child by over-analyzing their performance actually doing the exact opposite?
Dr. John: If you think about it in a pyramid form, the skills at the top of the pyramid where evaluating a skill that is just a culmination of a bunch of movements done in an athletic setting to express a skill because kicking a soccer ball is really just a bunch of selection. Extension, abduction, adduction, raise, push, pull it … to the brain is just this collection of movements. We’re evaluating these skills but the kids aren’t prepared to express them. So we’re criticizing something that they can’t change anyway. And then it increases that stress response that we were talking about. Now it’s like I, I, I can’t make the change. It’s not that you’re just defiant or you take a little longer than others. We’re measuring things that we should not be measuring in youth. The child thinks, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know how to get there yet.”
ILTWYP: What are the weekly warning signs that a child may need to dial back on their sports?
Dr. John: Are they enthusiastic? How’s their sleep? How’s their eating? Subconsciously the brain is an interesting thing because I’ll see kids move their bodies in a certain way and it’s what their brain wants them to do and you can pick up on some of these things and then just have a conversation with them. Developing these athletes to get more connected to themselves and not just the athletic portion of their lives.
ILTWYP: Why do parents need to say no to sports specialization?
Dr. John: Sports specialization is playing a sport for eight months or more a year. Statistics have shown that most elite athletes, Olympians and NFL players alike, that the majority of these top athletes were multi-sport athletes. The brain does better in development, playing on different surfaces, different rules and different types of coordination, if it’s a group activity, if it’s a one-on-one activity. They are all needed for development and not just for sports, but also to develop emotionally and socially.
Dr. John’s book, Minimize injury, Maximize Performance, A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide. And you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes and noble and Google play and will be released on June 5th.