ST. PETERSBURG — Not long ago, Dr. Douglas Carlan prescribed several months of rest for a 13-year-old baseball pitcher with an overuse injury in his shoulder.
The patient's father didn't like that plan. Why? The family had invested $100,000 in his son's travel team and scouts would be watching.
Carlan, a St. Petersburg orthopedic surgeon, was dismayed but not entirely surprised at the reaction: It's part of the reason children and adolescents end up with overuse injuries in the first place.
"It's an epidemic, no question," Carlan, also a hand specialist for the Tampa Bay Rays, told an audience of roughly 300 people at the annual BayCare Sports Medicine Conference Saturday.
That uptick of overuse injuries among young athletes, fueled by yearlong travel and showcase leagues that force kids to home in on only one sport, was the big focus of Saturday's conference, attended by parents, coaches and trainers.
Keynote speaker David Epstein, a sports journalist and author of The Sports Gene, said that young athletes who specialize in one sport run a 40 percent higher risk of an "adult-style" overuse injury, such as a stress fracture.
He noted a higher correlation of overuse injuries among children from higher income families, who can afford the price tags of private coaches and yearlong leagues.
But besides the harmful impact on children's growing bodies, excessive practice in only one sport doesn't necessarily translate into success, said Epstein.
Genetic ability plays a crucial role. And there's also research showing that "sampling" a variety of sports before age 15 improves skills and increases longevity, he said.
Experts noted that not all that long ago, most youth leagues were seasonal, letting children try multiple sports. The expensive year-round sports leagues, however, changed that once-typical pattern of adolescence.
Dr. Koco Eaton, an orthopedic surgeon and a team physician for the Rays, suggested a need for a cultural change.
Epstein said coaches need to "feel like they're part of the long-term development pipeline." If a coach is obsessed with winning a league for 10-year-olds, it's in his interest for the players to specialize in just that sport — even if it means those players may suffer by the time they're 15.
Parents, he said, must be willing to confront leagues and coaches and say "You don't have my child's long-term interests in mind."
In the audience was Brandon resident Nick Rodriguez, whose 14-year-old son played for a six-month football league when he was 12.
Rodriguez said his son saw how some of his friends were worn down by the constant practices and games. At the end of the season, he told his father he wanted to do something else. He now plays soccer, skateboards and also plans to try out for the high school football team next year.
"The multiple sports has worked well for him," he said. "He's not pigeonholed into one thing."
Jenny Yoakum, a Palm Harbor physical therapist, said her 12-year-old son plays in a year-round baseball league. She said she has had reservations about the hypercompetitive nature of the league, but he loves it. So she encourages him do some other exercises in his spare time, such as yoga, and routinely asks him if he wants to continue with the league.
He's already talking about playing in college, but she said she tries to dissuade him from thinking too far ahead. "I try to take the emphasis off (being a) superstar 12-year-old," she said.
Contact Jodie Tillman at (813) 226-3374 or [email protected] Follow @JTillmanTimes.