A gentle reminder to grown-ups: sports are supposed to be fun and safe for kids

Now that the Labor Day holiday has passed, it’s a perfect time to remind youngsters and their parents: Sports are supposed to be leisure and pleasure activities. And they need to be safe.

Ryan Basen, a tutor to kids and a medical writer, has put together a pointed piece in the Washington Post about youngsters and athletic over-use. He cites facts, scientific studies, and his own painful experiences to chide parents gently about the widespread mania for youngsters to spend huge chunks of their lives in games that not only may not be fun but painful and harmful.

In fact, he argues, kids see grown-ups’ enthusiasm for sports and embrace this, sometimes failing to clue their own parents into the injury and pain they may be suffering due to athletic excess. Youngsters increasingly hurt their knees, backs, necks, ankles, muscles, and ligaments with injuries attributable not only to over-doing exercises that involve running, jumping, and contact (with other kids, surfaces, or gear) but also because they specialize in a sport and repeatedly stress certain parts of their bodies, he says.

As a teen-ager, Basen became such a baseball fanatic that he played on, and endured considerable pain as his growth spurt and repetitive stress led to “a sharp bone [that] began to protrude out of the joint, masked only by a stretched layer of skin.” Fortunately, he had a longtime, sharp-eyed, and concerned coach and a physician father. They recognized that he was limping for a reason: he was hurting a lot due to a condition related to sports stress and rapid adolescent growth. He got appropriate care, his pain went away, and he did not have long-term consequences.

That isn’t true for all young athletes. I’ve written about the growing distress by medical and health experts about youngsters’ harm from concussions and other head injuries. These can occur with lifetime cognitive and development debilitation for both boys and girls in all manner of sports, including soccer, softball, diving, cheer leading, gymnastics, and dance.

The 2016 Summer Games and new lawsuits in the civil justice system also remind us that head and other injuries are sadly too common everywhere in athletics, even in synchronized swimming. Ask youth coaches, and the good ones will warn about youth injuries due to specialization and repetitive stresses in tennis, golf, lacrosse, basketball, and baseball.

Football, of course, is its own special case. I’ve written a lot about how poorly the pro game has dealt with the growing scandals about the significant health harms that its players suffer−and how leaders even have played fast and loose with information in campaigns to protect young and up and coming athletes in the sport.

The NFL season has only just formally opened, and commentators and fans alike already are buzzing about the league’s hypocrisy in proclaiming that it wants to protect its players (partly due to its billion-dollar settlement of lawsuits over the issue), even as Cam Newton, one of its Carolina Panthers superstars and a big and powerful athlete, endured an on-field beating, including bone-jarring head blows. The league has announced a new $100 million commitment to improving player safety, with investments in medical research and technology, especially better helmets, to protect athletes from head injuries. Still, the Denver Bronco players who battered Newton received the league’s minimum fines, sums totaling under $50,000 for athletes whose salaries run into the tens of millions of dollars.

The aim of all this concern isn’t to be kill-joys. Just the opposite. Athletics, within bounds, can be a huge boost to youngsters’ physical health, emotional well-being, character development and social skills. But this demands that grown-ups set bounds, and that they themselves act maturely for the growth and enjoyment of youngsters.

As Basen tells the kids he tutors about their athletic endeavors: “Stop pushing through the pain. Go see your doctor if something hurts. Enjoy sports.”

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