Health Experts to NCAA: Keep an Eye on Youth Sports

January 13, 2009

National Harbor, Md. — It might seem a provocative question to pose to a group of athletics administrators: “Is excellence in sport compatible with good health?”

But there it was, stretched across a giant ballroom at a resort hotel here, just south of the nation’s capital, where the NCAA is about to kick off its annual meeting. One day before the main events begin, a group of scholars and athletics officials heard about the darker side of sports at the association’s scholarly colloquium, now in its second year.

Armed with a foreboding title, “Paying the Price,” and sobering terminology like “injury epidemic” and “traumatic brain injuries,” the session featured experts in sports psychology, exercise physiology, kinesiology, and orthopedics, who warned that an unchecked quest for greatness in sports can have dire physical and mental consequences for young athletes.

“The NCAA should be concerned about what’s happening in youth sports,” said Daniel Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, who does research on burnout in athletes. An increasing focus on year-round training in only one sport can hasten burnout and injury among young athletes, Mr. Gould and other experts said.

Three-quarters of the one million sport-related injuries that happen each year are in athletes younger than 15 years old, Ronald F. Zernicke, an orthopedic expert who is director of the Bone & Joint Injury Prevention & Rehabilitation Center at the University of Michigan, told NCAA members. And 30 percent to 50 percent of all athletics injuries among youths are from overuse, he said.

At this rate, Mr. Gould added, by the time athletes reach college-level competition, “they’ve got a lot of mileage — what’s happening at the lower levels is very important.” —Libby Sander