The modern era of youth sports has participants putting in workloads unseen in previous generations.
Summer league sports have been a major contributor to the increased workload as coaches, parents and young athletes across the country pursue success at the highest level. One byproduct, according to a recent ESPN report, has been the rise of injuries in youth sports.
So how are local schools addressing player health?
At Parsons High School, the athletic department recently scaled back its summer weight program from four days a week to three.
“That’s a conversation my coaches and I have had over the summer,” Parsons athletic director Rob Barcus said. “We’re getting more kids with injuries. During the year, they go all year-round. We need to look at some time in the summer to let their bodies recover and maybe some more time in between sports.”
Allowing kids time to themselves has been emphasized across the area.
“The kids are tired. There’s a lot being thrown at them, and some of them even have full-time jobs in the summers,” Labette County athletic director and head football coach Sean Price said. “Some of them are working on the farm all day after a morning football camp.”
While weightlifting can add to an athlete’s summer workload, many in the area view weight training as a means of injury prevention.
“The stronger you are, the stronger your body is. Research says your chances of injury are less,” Parsons basketball coach Anthony Houk said. “We talk about stretching, rest and nutrition all the time. Heck, I don’t even think these kids get enough sleep.
“We have multiple coaches in the weight room to watch form. You can get hurt with a bad lifting form. We do a lot of things and have a lot of things in place to help these kids and prevent them from getting injured.”
Price echoed the importance of proper weight training as a form of injury prevention.
“We’ve been fortunate with injuries, but we try to do a lot of prevention work with our weight program,” Price said. “But knock on wood that we keep being fortunate.”
A chief culprit contributing to the increase in youth’s injuries is specialization. According to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin Department of Kinesiology, specialized athletes are two-to-three times more likely to suffer a hip or knee injury. Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, the director of Sports Medicine Research and Education at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, said specialized athletes — those who participate almost exclusively in one sport — are 125% more likely to suffer serious overuse injuries, according to ESPN.
“Kids younger and younger are going into doctors offices because of specialization,” said Chris Brown, the athletic trainer at Parsons and Labette County. “In my opinion, kids shouldn’t specialize until they’re at the college level.”
“It’s a huge workload for kids that play three sports,” Parsons football offensive coordinator Jeff Schibi added. “We want the kids to get some rest and recover. As far as specialization, you better be 100% sure you’ll make some money playing that sport.”
At the college level, athletic trainers are noticing more injuries pop up in first-year players. Bodies that in previous years had been fresher than their senior counterparts are now the most vulnerable.
“I have noticed an increase in injuries with incoming freshmen each year. The injuries I am seeing more of are ACL injuries, concussions, shoulder and elbow injuries,” said Brittany Haley, athletic trainer at Labette Community College. “Concepts that are constantly talked about with allied health professions working with youth are avoiding overtraining and overuse. Ways to do this (are) by not training youth athletes like they are miniature adults, avoiding excessive sports specialization and allowing recovery time and off seasons.”
Each sport has its own hurdles to overcome and methods to employ to keep athletes healthy.
“Pitch counts with baseball, nutrition with wrestling, hit and jump counts with volleyball, throwing durations with softball and running durations with basketball,” Haley said. “Hydration with all sports. Balancing hard days with easy days. Our coaches monitor the athletes and adjust accordingly.”
Ryan Phillips, the head coach of the Labette softball program, said he’s seen an uptick in overuse injuries in his 15 seasons guiding the Cardinals.
“I didn’t have a single shoulder surgery in my first five years here,” Phillips said. “Now I’ve had like three or four over the last five years.
“These kids are coming off playing 60 games in the summer, then they’re practicing every day in the fall. That’s a workload they’re not used to.”
While mending broken bodies is an added stress on college coaches, Phillips admits that it’s often a backdoor method to landing a recruit that a four-year school may not want to risk giving a scholarship. Audrey Miller, who earned NJCAA Second Team All-American honors this past spring for Labette, tore her ACL in high school and didn’t receive much recruiting interest.
“We’ve had several come in and already had ACL surgery or in the process of rehabbing,” Phillips said. “One coming in this fall is coming right off of rehab and another coming off shoulder surgery. We may get those kids because the Division II and Division I schools want to make sure they’re healthy. I’ll take a chance on a kid like Audrey Miller whereas a four-year school can’t give that scholarship to a kid they don’t know will be healthy.”
While Phillips has dealt with more and more injuries in recent years, his most accomplished alum was able to stay injury-free during her two years at Labette.
Alex Brake, a two-time NJCAA Pitcher of the Year from 2015-16, pitched nearly the entirety of two postseasons at Labette. The Cardinals finished fifth at the national tournament both seasons and her career line included 416.1 innings pitched.
Phillips cites a lesser workload for Brake, a native of Webb City, Missouri, as a potential factor in keeping her healthy over two seasons.
“She didn’t play high school ball and her travel team didn’t travel all over God’s green earth,” Phillips said. “Her team probably played 30 games a year. She was well rested coming in. That could be why she didn’t have any catastrophic injuries when she was here.”
Schools and coaches are ultimately forced to be more cognizant of player health as the youth sports scene — and the desire to chase college scholarships — continues to explode.
“Ultimately, their health and safety should be first and foremost,” Houk said. “We can’t compete and can’t win without our kids being healthy. It has to be a top priority.”