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The interplay of sports and physiology

In the past two decades, Dr. Gregory Cain has seen a significant uptick in kids specializing in sports at earlier ages — and the injuries that follow.

“I’m not saying all coaches are this way, but many coaches don’t understand enough about the physiology of growing bodies to know when enough is enough,” said Cain, a pediatrician and sports medicine doctor at Group Health in Port Orchard.

The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine advises that high-intensity training at a young age can lead to overuse injuries and burnout.

Kids can train hard in a single sport but they need a break for part of the year, Cain said. They should try other sports during that time so developing bones, ligaments and joints have a chance to heal. Before puberty, kids should practice five days a week at most.

Dr. Jared Anderson, a sports medicine doctor with the Everett Clinic, said the more time a young athlete spends focusing on a single sport, the more likely they will deal with injuries later. He cites a 2011 study concluding that young baseball players who pitched more than 100 innings a year were three and a half times more likely to get injured.

And parents need to respect their kids’ interests and not live vicariously through them. Kids sometimes even report mysterious aches and pains to get out of sports, Cain said. When he talks with them alone, the kids admit they want to quit but don’t know how to convince their parents.

At young ages, kids don’t necessarily need organized sports, Cain said. They can just go outside and play.

“Kids almost never get overuse injuries playing with each other,” he said. “It happens in a structured situation when coaches are pushing.”

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