Dr. James Andrews leaned forward in his chair on Thursday and put his elbows on the table, pointing a finger at a rep from Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, perhaps the preeminent high school football book in the state.
“By the way, here’s a problem,” said the legendary orthopedic surgeon and pediatric sports researcher. He was at the Park Cities Club on the 17th floor for a roundtable with healthcare providers and high school coaches and media hosted by Children’s Health System of Texas, which he’s partnering with to form a sports medicine research and treatment facility in Plano.
“I experienced this this weekend; my grandson, who’s five years old in Birmingham, I counted up the sports I had him involved in and it was seven different sports—golf and tee ball and karate,” Andrews continued. “This summer, he was on the swimming team at the country club and he was an exceptional little swimmer; he led the county in points scored, all this kind of stuff. Well, my daughter called me this week and said he’d been selected by the all county team that swims year round.”
Let’s stop there: Andrews has found that the two largest contributing factors to youth sports injury are specialization, playing one sport for the entire year, with, say, a week or two off; and professionalism, training kids like they’re professional athletes. The people sitting at the table who actually provide the treatments—Drs. Kate Bauer, Chris Redman, and Dustin Loveland—all agreed that multiple sports are actually good for kids; they use different muscles, different rotations, require different habits. One sport for that long, though, can cause issues, which is why year-round gymnasts are more susceptible to ACL injuries and baseball players who over-pitch can hurt a rotator cuff. In fact, one of Andrews’ studies found that kid pitchers are 36 times more likely to injure their shoulder if they throw fatigued.
Now, back to Andrews: “He was so good, he was only five and they normally don’t take them until they’re age 8, but they wanted to move him up and let him swim with that year-round swimming club,” he said. “So what do I do? I’m still trying to figure out, how do I control this? And you understand how hard it is to control what happens with him out there with the pressures and the systems that are dictating what they do. Here I am with old grandkid, trying to figure out, is this an honor? Or is this a disaster?”
Andrews is one of the nation’s leaders in this stuff, and even he admitted being unsure of how to advise his daughter and his grandson. It’s a good opportunity—the boy loves swimming and he sounds pretty good at it—but the risk of injury is greater considering it lasts 12 months. This is one of the many conundrums that the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Plano will seek to solve. How do you balance risk with reward? How do you fit into a culture of high-impact, year round league sports, which, for many kids, is the best way to get in front of college scouts?
“Football is pretty much the only school left where the college coaches and the high schools work together,” said Gerald Brence, the athletic director for the Plano Independent School District.
Thursday’s luncheon in the Park Cities was a broad discussion of prevention, treatment, culture, and education around sports medicine. The demand is strong: A study in from 2013 found that 1.35 million student athletes received care in an emergency room the year prior because of an injury sustained playing sports. Younger athletes, ages 12 through 15, made up 47 percent of concussion treatments. And it’s no secret that Plano and Collin County is attracting families like moths to a flame.
They want to break through to parents that it’s actually a good thing to be more Jordan Spieth and less Tiger Woods—the former’s parents wouldn’t allow him to play golf outside of the summer, a decision that research has found will improve a kid’s chances of avoiding a serious injury playing the sport later in life. Tiger, as you might recall, was trained vigorously as a youth and his career has since been derailed by back issues.
“Part of the problem, it’s easy for us to say, drop the baseball, pick up the football, don’t pick up a baseball for three or four months; but the idea among parents— and maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not— is that if your kids aren’t on these travel leagues they aren’t getting exposure,” said Dr. Redman. “I don’t know the short solution to that.”
They’re hoping the new facility will help carve out that space. There will be educational programs for parents and grandparents, coaches and players. The program itself is already active, it’s just housed in Children’s existing Plano facility. Redman, for instance, says he has phone numbers for both football coaches for Plano West and Plano East high schools plugged into his smartphone in case he’s needed.
The program will move into its permanent digs in the latter half of 2017, said Children’s Health Plano administrator Dr. Michael Wiggins. It’ll be 96,000 square feet with an imaging and ambulatory surgery center, including MRI, general radiology, physician offices, therapy space, and a dedicated athletic performance center. It’ll have dedicated space for rehabilitation and neuroscience, as well. Concussions will be a major focus.
“It all is basically early recognition, there’s no such thing as a ding anymore. A ding is out,” Andrews said. “There’s a lot in concussions that we’re going to really get involved with in this institute to take care of these kids and rehab ‘em and hopefully they’ll never have another one.”