Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

June 28, 2010

Dangers of the 'Tiger Track'

Mark Hyman pushed his 13-year-old son too hard in baseball. Now he raises the alarm about the risks of youth sports that have gotten too big and intense.

Eric Yun

Mark Hyman wasn't a stereotypically evil youth-sports coach. Yet, with dreams of a championship trophy and maybe a college scholarship down the road, he sent his 13-year-old son Ben to the pitcher's mound with a tired arm—against the wishes of their athletic trainer. Several years later, Ben hurt his UCL and had Tommy John surgery.

Mark Hyman
"We're looking at kids' sports much as we do the big-time stuff—as entertainment for fans and as profit centers for media companies."

Mark Hyman

In Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, Hyman uses his experiences with his son to document a youth-sports culture in which well-meaning parents and overzealous coaches push kids too far. Parents chasing after a statistically unlikely college scholarship or professional contract often feel obligated to enroll their little athletes in club teams and exclusive training sessions. Coaches looking for validation find new ways each year to overuse their star players. This type of overuse is particularly common in young pitchers. In a typical week in Major League Baseball, a starting pitcher will pitch once or twice and throw between 100 and 230 pitches. Later this summer in the Little League World Series, a 12-year-old pitcher might throw up to 255 pitches. As with most things children like, the fun of childhood sports has been sucked dry by adults.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for length and clarity, Hyman tells Gelf how parents can lose sight of what's best for their progeny, how Tiger Woods changed the ways parents view athletic children, and the growing financial cost of raising an athlete.

Gelf Magazine: You paint a grisly portrait of youth sports, in which the adults are increasingly angry, and the kids are unhappy. What made you decide to write this book? What is the message you wanted to send to parents?

Mark Hyman: Many things led to writing the book, but two stand out. In 2004, I wrote an article for Businessweek that shed light on the spike in high-school pitchers seeking Tommy John surgery. I asked some pretty tough questions in the story: Where were parents when their kids were using up their elbows? How could the coaches put winning above the health of young players?
Two years later, my son ruptured his UCL in a high-school game. If he wanted to pitch again—and he did—he was facing a Tommy John operation. At that point, I realized that while I thought I was part of the solution, I'd actually been part of the problem.
My hope in writing the book was to connect the dots for parents in ways that perhaps hadn't been done before. We may think we're helping our kids reach their potential as athletes. Often, the opposite is true.

Gelf Magazine: The idea that competitive youth sports may have harmful effects on kids is not new. As you state in the book, many of the concerns we have today were previously expressed by educators, former athletes, and even presidents since the 1950s. Why do you think these concerns largely have been ignored as youth sports have exploded?

Mark Hyman: There isn't a single explanation. One factor is that there's a rapid turnover of families in youth sports. Every few years, it's basically a new cast of parents and coaches, unaware how easily kids can be pushed beyond emotional and physical limits. Lyle Micheli, a prominent pediatric-sports-medicine doctor in Boston, expressed this well in the book. He told me he does a lot of speaking to volunteer coaches, and he told me how frustrating it can be: "Every six or seven years, it's a totally different group. We're starting from scratch again."
The other thing—maybe the main thing—is that as long as there are parents, there will be parents with big dreams for their children. Increasingly, we've turned kids' sports into a career path: the rec league to the travel team to the high-school varsity to a college scholarship and then—why not? —the Knicks. Your child has a better chance of seeing a flying saucer than growing up to become a pro athlete.

Gelf Magazine: Are the problems of youth sports specific to the US, or do other countries face similar problems?

Mark Hyman: I saw a poll on this issue recently. It concluded that the US has the worst-behaved youth-sports adults in the world, followed closely by India, Italy, and Argentina.

Gelf Magazine: When Tiger Woods swung his toy golf club on national TV at age two, he made many parents believe superstar athletes could be molded in any sport if the parents started when their children were young enough. What are some of the dangers of such early athletic specification?

Mark Hyman: So much can go wrong when kids are nudged onto what I refer to as the "Tiger Track." Children who specialize early are more vulnerable to injury. Generally, these are overuse injuries that occur from doing the same sport or skill over and over again, year after year: cross-country runners with stress fractures, pitchers with growth-plate injuries, swimmers with lax shoulders caused by damaged rotator cuffs and labrums. These injuries were rare before adults became the chief organizers of youth sports. Now they make up half of reported sports injuries in children.
Another issue is burnout—kids mentally tuning out sports because they're no longer fun. By age 13, 75 percent of players have given up organized sports. For every Tiger, how many kids would you guess are turned off from sports forever? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand?

Gelf Magazine: Those same parents who push their kids to specific sports early often spend large sums of money on training. Do you think athletically gifted children from lower-income families, who can't afford specialized training, will be shut out from competing in college and professional athletics?

Mark Hyman: There are economic barriers and they're getting higher. The best analysis I have seen of this issue is in Tom Farrey's book, Game On. Tom makes the point that, while kids from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds dominate college basketball and football, it's rare for kids without money to make it in most collegiate sports from golf to volleyball to tennis.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think sports like golf and volleyball, where socioeconomic advantages exist, create worse environments for kids than football or basketball?

Mark Hyman: It depends on the adults—coaches and parents. When they set the right tone, good things tend to happen, regardless of the sport—and vice versa.

Gelf Magazine: Eating disorders, use of performance-enhancing drugs, depression, and injuries are some of the real dangers you describe if parents push professional expectations on young children. Are these dangers amplified in sports in which elite performance is expected at younger ages?

Mark Hyman: Yes. An equally significant factor, though, seems to be the tone set by coaches and parents. When we send out ambiguous signals about winning and what's OK in pursuit of winning, kids make suspect decisions. Don Hooton believes this deeply. Hooton's son, Taylor, a high-school-baseball pitcher, took his life after abusing anabolic steroids. Hooton says that Taylor began taking drugs after his coach suggested that, for Taylor to play on the varsity the following year, he'd have to "get bigger."

Gelf Magazine: Do you think putting stricter age limits on sports in which athletes can turn pro as teens can help solve the problem?

Mark Hyman: I'd define the issue a little differently. In the past, there was a clear distinction between the sports that kids play and sports played by college and pro athletes. No one ever mistook one for another. We weren't measuring what we saw at the local field against what happens at the Rose Bowl or Yankee Stadium. That's changing. And that has diminished youth sports significantly. Now we have dozens of Little League games on national TV. ESPN does national telecasts of high-school football and basketball. USA Today and ESPN compile weekly rankings of top high-schools teams. We're looking at kids' sports much as we do the big-time stuff—as entertainment for fans and as profit centers for media companies.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Little League is doing enough to protect kids, especially pitchers?

Mark Hyman: For the first six decades of Little League's existence, its pitching rules were inadequate. Each year at the Little League World Series, 40,000 fans gathered in Williamsport and millions more watched on TV as kid pitchers stepped onto the field to use their arms in ways that most orthopedic surgeons in the country agreed was dangerous. In recent years, Little League has adopted a pitch-limit rule, which it continues to refine. So things are getting better.
In fairness, aside from pitching, Little League has a laudable safety record, from pioneering batting helmets to mandating breakaway bases.

Gelf Magazine: Overuse is one of the biggest reasons for injuries; it's also the easiest to avoid. You interviewed a doctor who likened some of the practices coaches and parents put athletes through to child abuse. Should we start thinking about criminal charges for negligent coaches and parents?

Mark Hyman: Let's start with better education. The thought of personal-injury lawyers getting hold of such cases is chilling.

Gelf Magazine: It's easy for me to scoff at the stories of parents instructing kids to play injured or yelling at doctors for not clearing their injured kids to play. Having been in a similar situation to such parents, however, you offer some reasons why generally loving and educated parents and coaches risk the physical and emotional health of their children. What is it about the culture of youth sports that creates this behavior?

Mark Hyman: When my son was striking out all the other 13-year-olds, I'd stand in the dugout and grow at least two inches. I felt a pure and peculiar sense of validation about it: My son throws strikes; therefore, I'm a model parent. Ridiculous, of course. But I don't think I'm the only one. Even though our league was a low-key neighborhood organization, I became invested in winning. I wanted to out-coach the neurosurgeon on the other bench. I wanted to please and impress the parents of the children on our team. I wanted the championship trophy for the fireplace mantle. When you're thinking about that stuff, you're capable of doing dumb things. I did some dumb things.

Gelf Magazine: Knowing what you know today, what would you have changed about how you handled your son Ben's baseball days? What recommendations would you give parents of athletically gifted children?

Mark Hyman: My biggest regret is watching his season expand each year and not doing anything about it. At times, I even encouraged more baseball. He would have been far better off had I drawn a circle around his season at four or five months, instead of the eight or nine months it became. Tommy John is quoted in the book saying: "It makes no difference whether you start pitching at 8 or 18. I can take a kid who has never pitched in his life until he's 17. By the time he's 19, he'll throw as well or better than the kid who's been pitching since he was 8—and have less wear and tear on his arm." I wish Tommy John had said that to me when my son was 8.
The best advice I can give is to remember it's about your kid, not your ambition for your kid. Sometimes it's tough to distinguish between the two. Try hard.

Eric Yun

Eric Yun is getting a second degree in communications and lives in Long Island.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Sports
- posted on Jul 23, 10

I really appreciate this article. It's another reminder to focus on my son, and not winning. We've been enjoying Little League and I want that to continue. Great information. Thanks!

Article by Eric Yun

Eric Yun is getting a second degree in communications and lives in Long Island.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.