Active Voice: Over-emphasizing the Athletic Dream Now Could End Up Killing the Dream Later

By Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM and John DiFiori, M.D., FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM, is executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute and professor of pediatrics at Sanford School of Medicine, the University of South Dakota. He is a past trustee of ACSM and currently a member of the Medical Advisory Committee for Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. that provides youth football and cheer & dance programs with an emphasis on maintaining academic standards. Dr. Bergeron also serves on the academic advisory board for the International Olympic Committee’s postgraduate diploma program in sports medicine.

John DiFiori, M.D., FACSM, is a professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Orthopaedics, and Chief of the Division of Sports Medicine and Non-Operative Orthopaedics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. He also serves as head team physician for the UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Within the last few weeks, we have seen exhilarating images of youth dreams coming true on the smiling faces of the players in this year’s Little League World Series (LLWS) as the media presented us with unprecedented coverage of the event. So, it’s hard not to think about and embrace a seemingly logical connection and prospective pathway from Williamsport to next month’s World Series of Major League Baseball. But, is that the likely destiny for many or even any of these young LL players? Are the stars of the LLWS already on a predetermined and inevitable pathway to success in the Major Leagues?

A young girl hurling 70 mph fastballs on national television is a captivating story and certain to inspire many young baseball players. Likewise, some well-intentioned parents may encourage their kids to work harder, longer and more often on their skills, expecting the same level of achievement they witnessed repeatedly on the news and sports channels highlights. However, excessive training sessions and too much competition can be especially problematic for a vulnerable, young and still developing body.

Notably, current data confirm that excelling in a sport at the youth level does not predict future athletic success in that same sport. In fact, early single sport specialization, especially in team sports, may be detrimental to long-term athletic achievement. Many other factors can also potentially challenge a young player and ultimately affect long-term athletic success, including ongoing growth and development, injury and burnout. A serious overuse injury affecting the immature musculoskeletal system has the potential to end a career before it even begins in earnest. The fallout of widespread overuse in youth baseball is perhaps best illustrated by what appears to be an increasing number of elbow injuries affecting the ulnar collateral ligament in young pitchers across the nation. This is simply from throwing too hard, too early and too often – which means these injuries are preventable!

Very few of today’s young athletes will end up playing professional sports. But that does not mean that a young boy or girl can’t dream about playing in the big leagues, and no one should discourage such lofty goals. Some kids will make it to the diamonds of Major League Baseball. Some will play in the NBA Finals, the US Open or compete for a gold medal in the Olympics. But, even for those very select few who have been blessed with the gifts of exceptional athletic ability, profound intrinsic desire and passion and sufficient resources and opportunity, the road is a long one that can be fraught with both challenges and risk.

While there are myriad demonstrated individual pathways to athletic achievement, there are certainly no guarantees. A sense of urgency and parent- or coach-driven premature specialization and unrelenting pushing may lead to early athletic success for a young athlete. But such an approach and unsustainable demands carry the risk of killing the dream because of injury and/or loss of interest and enjoyment in the sport. In contrast, diversified early athletic exposure, thinking long-term, emphasizing health, safety and fun, and avoiding preventable injuries (NYSHSI-Preventable-Injuries) may well provide children an enjoyable and rewarding experience AND long-term success in sport(s). Ironically, what some may have missed, while enjoying the LLWS, is that many of these youngsters are participating in more than one sport. In fact, the LLWS pitching phenom, Mo’ne Davis, competes in at least two other sports. Let’s hear it for the multisport youth athletes!