Dr. James Andrews believes that parents still need to do more for their youth athletes to prevent them from being injured even though more programs are being created to reduce them. (Nick Wass, Associated Press)
By Tim Bielik, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Dr. James Andrews is not giving up in his campaign for parents to keep young athletes healthy by keeping them from playing year-round and specializing.
He spoke to Dennis Manoloff back in 2013 in what is still one of the most-read stories on cleveland.com, now approaching a million page views.
Six years later, not much has changed in Andrews’ opinion when it comes to the parents.
“We’ve made some headway primarily with grandparents, not necessarily with parents,” Andrews said. “But it’s still a problem and we’re still seeing the youth injuries escalating year to year.
“The culture of sports, youth sports pretty much dominates parents’ thinking and coaches’ thinking. And it’s hard to crack into that culture to kind of get them to understand that sometimes, they’re doing more harm than good with the pressure they put on these young kids to specialize and play year-round and play two leagues at the same time.”
Andrews, 77, is one of the founding members of the American Sports Medicine Institute and the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He is one of the most renown sports medicine doctors in the United States, working with numerous top athletes including Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale and Redskins running backs Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson.
But he’s still trying to get the word out about keeping young athletes healthy. The good news for him is that it seems like more people are listening and reaching out to him these days. It’s just not yet enough, however.
“I have them write me and asked me to give them some advice. But Lord knows for every one that does that, there’s probably 100,000 out there that don’t,” Andrews said. “The grandparents are really a lot more knowledgeable about what’s happening than the parents. But the parents will invariably apologize to me and say, ‘We’ve always protected our son. We followed your advice with giving him time off and pitch counts.’
“Then I’ll get into their history and they first had an injury when they were 12. I don’t try to chastise them. But when I get through with them, I say, ‘My God, they think they really protected their kid. They hadn’t done anything right.’ I don’t know whether they just tell me that or not, but I get that all the time. You can’t make the parents feel like they’re the reason their kid’s in there fixing to get operated on.”
So what does Andrews think parents need to do for young athletes? His recommendations have been to have at least two months a year off from a high-stress activity like pitching and for them to play multiple sports to physically develop properly.
He pointed out that in Super Bowl LIII, about 90 percent of the players on both the Patriots and Rams rosters played more than one sport in high school.
One problem is young athletes being pressured to specialize in one sport for the entire year.
“All these kids need to be an athlete first,” Andrews said. “But the coaches and the systems are telling the parents as you probably know that if your kid doesn’t sign up to play youth baseball year-round, they can’t play with the elite league.”
Programs are starting to come around to help make coaches more accountable.
In 2018, the Alabama legislature enacted the Coach Safely Act, which requires coaches for athletes ages 14 or under to take a yearly course in sports medicine and get accredited before being able to coach. Andrews said they are pushing for neighboring states to adopt the law and hopes that eventually, it goes nationwide.
Major League Baseball has also gotten involved by creating a program in recent years called Pitch Smart, which set up pitch limit and rest guidelines for players between the ages of 7 and 22. Many organizations including USA Baseball, Little League Baseball and Perfect Game became compliant with the program as of January, 2018.
“Their statistics were terrible because they were seeing how many of these kids were coming out of high school and coming out of college that were already operated on for shoulder or elbow injuries in baseball. So that’s where they got real worried about it,” Andrews said. “Finally, they really started paying attention to the youth baseball circles because they finally realized that they didn’t if they didn’t help do something about the injury rates in youth baseball that they would’ve have anybody left to draft to play professional baseball that hadn’t already been operated on.”
One other problem that sticks out in Andrews’ mind is that the pressure to perform at a high level is leading to kids quitting. According to Andrews, about 70 percent of kids under the age of 13 drop out of sports.
“It’s one thing to say they’re doing too much exercise or too much year-round sports. But it’s also probably worse to say that you’re not doing any,” Andrews said. “Those kids that drop out, statistics show that they’re much less likely not to do any kind of physical activity the rest of their (lives), even into their adulthood.”