WASHINGTON -- In the 1950s, the best high school athletes usually played more than one sport. Indeed, excellence in a number of different activities was how they built their reputations.
Multi-sport participation was the norm for lesser skilled athletes as well. And this diversification provided the benefits of structured cross-training --namely avoidance of injurious repetitive stress on a particular set of muscles. The kinds of physical ailments that are bedeviling young athletes today were virtually unheard of then.
Why the change? It can be traced to multi-million-dollar professional sport contracts, college athletic scholarships and Olympic glory beckoning in the wings.
One finds that throughout much of the nation today, children who want to compete in high school and college at a varsity level in virtually any sport have to devote their extracurricular life to that goal practically year-round and from the time they learn to walk. Childhood competition has become more ferocious and achievement-oriented than ever before, frequently at overly aggressive parents' behest (as opposed to kids' natural inclination to just have fun). Kids are enrolled in year-round gymnastics, ice skating, swimming and soccer programs that take a tremendous physical toll on their developing bodies.
Widespread specialization in youth sports is creating a public health problem of growing dimensions. Children are being asked to train in a professional manner long before their puberty and the ability to withstand such rigorous preparation. The softness of their growing bones and the tightness of their ligaments and tendons make youngsters especially vulnerable to repetitive physical stress.
Injuries from overuse are commonplace in professional sports teams' locker rooms, but increasingly have been cropping up among pre-teens and teen-agers. I personally know of a 15-year-old star baseball pitcher who has a torn rotator cuff and must undergo shoulder surgery, as well as a 16-year-old ranking girl tennis player sidelined with tendonitis and shin splints.
Other afflictions that are making headway among young athletes because of ambitious efforts to turn them into precocious performers include stress fractures, bursitis, runners' knee, and debilitating back pain.
The trend toward youth specialization in a single sport has had an insidious snowball effect. Youngsters who have no aspirations to be the next Michael Jordan, Mark McGwire or Venus Williams but want to play an organized sport in school must either follow the example of their more driven teammates (and subject themselves to premature repetitive stress injuries in the process) or abandon their goals.
Youngsters who successfully commit to specialization at an early age and are able to endure injuries from overuse often eventually succumb to psychological "burnout." In fact, existing data suggest that up to 70 percent of all kids who engage intensively in sports at a very young age drop out by the time they are 13.
One of the tragedies of this syndrome is that these kids can sour on their sport for the rest of their life, depriving themselves of some healthful and enjoyable adult exercise if the object of their trauma happens to be tennis, golf, or swimming. It thus seems clear that the number of children who are willing to endure painful stress injuries into maturity and sacrifice normal childhood extracurricular activities in pursuit of adult athletic fame and fortune are less than one might think.
Another downside of repetitive stress injuries early in life is their likelihood to become chronic in nature. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that kids who sustain severe damage to their bones and joints from overuse are much more susceptible than the average individual to arthritis and other painful -- sometimes crippling -- muscular disorders in their later years.
The increased medical costs on an individual and national basis from youth sport specialization are as yet undetermined but are probably substantial, especially if the long-term health consequences are factored into the equation.
Talented youngsters will eventually excel in whatever activity they have an aptitude for, even if they engage in multi-sports participation before puberty.
It is obvious that when child athletes choose not to concentrate on a single sport at an early age, the nation's medical balance sheet, as well as the health of the kids, will fare far better. By diversifying their activity, the youngsters will escape the experience of having their bodies grow old before their time.
Edward Flattau is a Washington-based columnist who generally writes about environmental issues.