An actual summer break is the best medicine

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The Wyoming High School Activities Association appears to be making a valiant effort to reinstate a little sanity into our obsession with youth sports, and I’ve been happy to print opinion pieces submitted by WHSAA Director Ron Laird in recent months.

Unfortunately, I think the WHSAA is too close to the problem to really provide a solution, and their submission to the paper this week demonstrates their unwillingness to really do anything about it.

I think we place far too much value on what our children can do on the court or the field, and in the process I think we have done little more than make participation more expensive for parents and communities while also eroding the benefits that sports are supposed to produce for the children who play them.

And now the rabid pursuit of our children’s sports stardom is producing a bevy of costly injuries that didn’t hit previous generations nearly as hard.

Mr. Laird submitted a cautionary piece to the newspaper this week warning young athletes and their parents that the risk of injury goes up substantially when a student focuses on only one sport, but still suggests that there is a solution that involves training for sports 12 months out of the year.

“Research shows that sports specialization is putting teenage athletes at risk. According to a study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, high school athletes who specialize in a single sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during their playing season than those who play multiple sports,” Laird wrote.

I certainly have no problem agreeing with those findings, and I also tend to concur with Laird’s suggestion that students play different sports in different seasons.

But after seeing dozens of promising young athletes hang it up for good two or three years before their high school graduation— because of injury, burnout or financial concerns— I think I disagree with Laird’s notion that simply shifting to another sport every three or four months is enough.

I believe that the best thing to do to avoid sports injuries (and keep more kids involved through high school graduation) is to avoid the off-season workouts that kids are currently “encouraged” to undertake in favor of a little good old-fashioned summer work— and a lot of good old-fashioned summer fun!

Laird indicated that trading in the football pads for basketball shorts every few months will provide some relief on the injury front, and he is probably right. It doesn’t, however, address the defections as a result of burnout and cost, and I think it fails to decrease injuries as much as an actual summer break from coaches and organized sports workouts would.

Another statistic provided by the head of the WHSAA in this month’s submission actually backs me up.

“The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons…reports that ‘overuse injuries’ (injuries caused when an athletic activity is repeated so often that parts of the body do not have enough time to heal) are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle school and high school students,” Laird wrote.

While switching to a different sport may, in fact, help decrease the risk of overuse injuries, workouts for all sports are similar enough that I believe the best way to protect young athletes— from themselves, their parents and their coaches— is to keep them away from organized sports activities of any kind while the school is on summer break.

Obviously this is tough for baseball players and others who compete outside of school programs, but those activities exist beyond the influence of the WHSAA and tend to lack the rigor and structure of school-sponsored activities.

No, the rash of sports injuries to middle and high school students— like the increase in defections as a result of burnout and financial pressure— are a direct result of the off-season demands we are making on kids who play sports in the middle school and high school.

If the WHSAA is serious about combatting all of these problems, then their board will exercise its authority to place tighter restrictions on coaches contact with athletes during the summer break. They also need to create significant punishments for violations of those restrictions, and impose those punishments when coaches fail to honor them.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again— the biggest problem with organized sports is that they’re too organized, and not enough about kids. 

Let them be kids in the summer. I bet the rest will take care of itself.

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