Like a lot of kids, I dreamed of being a professional athlete. I was lucky, in that I had as much talent as a steamed artichoke. While other kids strive, only to find they aren't good enough to make the cut in college or the pros, my wake-up call came when I wasn't coordinated enough to don the equipment without the help of parents, coaches, and the concerned citizens who would trickle down from the stands.
But I played 'em all. Most of the kids I knew played multiple sports in the 1970s and 1980s. There were few travel teams, sports academies or year-round specialists.
There wasn't as much burnout. We didn't get hurt as often, or as badly. And our parents didn't spend crazy money in search of a goal that was likely impossible to attain.
Dr. James Andrews knows more about sports injuries than just about anyone else. He operates clinics in Alabama and Flordia, and is the go-to rebuilder of superstar knees, elbows and shoulders in the nation. He also reconstructs the joints of young athletes. More and more of those kids, he says, are coming in with injuries identical to those the pros suffer.
Speaking to the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week, he said the grueling training of youth athletics and the tendency of kids to play one sport year-round is destroying their bodies, often thanks to misguided coaches' and parents' fantasies of scholarships and contracts.
Andrews has seen a five- to sevenfold increase in serious youth sports injuries over the past 10 to 20 years, and blames:
Specialization: Andrews recommends a minimum of two months off per year (and preferably three or four) to recover from a specific sport.
Professionalism: Working kids out too long, day after day.
Both are destructive to young bodies and cause burnout without, many experts agree, making the kids better.
The reason it often doesn't work? We don't get stronger or faster or better while working out. We improve while recovering from workouts, and from repetitve motions, like batting or hitting a golf ball, that aren't in line with what humans have evolved to do naturally.
A few months ago, I heard Pat Smith, the Smithtown School District's director of athletics and physical education, speak truth. The orientation for parents of middle-schoolers who want to play a sport next year was a tutorial in manners and the relative triviality of middle-school sports, along with the reality of our kids' athletic futures.
They aren't going pro. They aren't getting scholarships.
And if you are spending a lot of money on travel teams and clinics in the hope they will get a free ride, you should take that cash and spend it on tutors and math camps, because the scholarship money is in academics.
Smith was a wrestler and coach whose kids also played sports. He's a serious advocate for youth sports, he just doesn't advocate being too serious about youth sports.
Why? Because, Smith says, in the century that the Smithtown School District has been around, only three of its players made it to baseball's major leagues. None made it to the NFL or the NBA.
And Smith says that as seductive as college recruiters can be, there are so few athletic scholarships that getting one is like winning a lottery: wonderful if it happens, but not a goal sensible people strive for.
Ask yourself: Is your child clearly the best athlete in the league? Whatever the answer, letting him or her work out too much or specialize in one sport is a mistake. It's bad if a kid with no future in athletics is hurt pointlessly. It's worse, in a way, if one with potential is injured.
That's why my Little League coach didn't have any qualms about taking me aside and saying: "We need you on base here. Do you think you can get your head in front of the next pitch?"
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.