For years Tommy John, son of the legendary Major League Baseball pitcher of the same name, was a personal trainer for adults with a lucrative side business: Parlaying his famous name and his own experience as a Minor League pitcher, he had become a private baseball skills coach for kids.
John enjoyed the work, but over time, he noticed his young baseball players developing the same degenerative physical issues that plagued his 50- and 60-year-old rehab clients. That provoked a crisis of conscience. “I was losing sleep,” the 40-year-old John says. “I wasn’t part of a solution. I was just adding fuel to this fire.”
The fire John refers to is the explosive rate of childhood sports injuries. In the United States, where youth sports are a $15.5 billion-a-year business, costly travel leagues and private training foster early sports specialization and year-round participation. The result is that children are experiencing the kind of overuse injuries once found primarily in professional athletes.
A 2015 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics discovered that tears to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of the knee, injuries frequently sustained by athletes in fast-paced, high-impact sports such as soccer and basketball, have increased at an annual rate of 2.3 percent among 6- to 18-year-olds in the past 20 years. Serious shoulder and elbow injuries have risen fivefold for youth baseball and softball players in roughly the same time frame, according to the American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine. Also, a 2015 report in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction to address elbow damage in pitchers is now performed more frequently on teenagers than adults.
In 1974, after a decade of Major League pitching, John’s father was the first person to undergo UCL reconstruction. The fix allowed him to play another 14 seasons. However, both father and son have publicly expressed misgivings about the fact that the surgery is performed on so many youth players. John often cites the work of James Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon and UCL reconstruction expert, who estimates that 25 to 30 percent of athletes who have had the surgery are unable to play baseball two years after the procedure.
“My calling was to get to the source of these problems,” John says. “That’s how I’ve come to where I’m at right now.”
Eight years ago, John, who had a master’s degree in health and exercise science, shut down his baseball and personal training businesses and enrolled in chiropractic college. Today, he operates the Dr. Tommy John Performance and Healing Center in San Diego for athletes of all ages, although approximately 70 percent of his clients are under the age of 18. His recent book, “Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance,” is designed to teach parents how to protect their children from what he describes as an injury epidemic. The book includes a movement test that parents can use to assess their child’s overall strength and flexibility, exercises to address any weaknesses, recommendations for diet and lifestyle changes, and a consistent call for parents to challenge the youth sports status quo.
John says he regularly sees young athletes suffering from all kinds of debilitating conditions, including spinal stress fractures and joint damage. One client, a 21-year-old swimmer he calls “a product of the American youth sports engine,” had suffered through 42 shoulder separations and three surgeries, and was relying on 19 different medications to deal with chronic pain.
In addition to the physical stress young athletes face, John worries about the anxiety or depression some experience because of the pressure to perform. “When I hear about an 11-year-old swimmer being medicated for anxiety because she’s not doing well at her matches,” he says, “I about flip my lid.” Dealing with injury also creates stress that may provoke mental health issues for some kids.
“The majority of kids are not making it through healthfully,” he says. If a child is struggling in sports, either physically or mentally, he says, parents should change course in terms of the child’s practice schedule, diet and/or lifestyle.
Rest and recovery are key components of John’s program. He counsels parents to resist giving into the idea that their child will fall behind athletically if they take time off or decide not to join an elite team. Families should not allow themselves to feel pressured or victimized by coaches and trainers, he says. “That’s part of that billion-dollar youth sports industry,” John says.
It’s not just parents who have to stand up to coaches; young players should be ready to make their own case, too, John says. “This is the kid talking: ‘I’ve checked out three books in the library from my favorite athletes, and I’m going read these over the offseason. My family and I are taking a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I’m also going to try out another sport. I know that doing that cross-training is going to help with the skill set that I need to be the best player I can for your team next [season.]’ ”
Most importantly, John wants parents to remember that youth sports are supposed to be fun. Parents shouldn’t overinvest in their child’s performance on the field or court, emotionally or financially. His famous father refused to spend money on expensive travel teams or fancy equipment, and rarely watched John’s early games. “Winning and losing was never talked about,” John remembers. “When I came home, it wasn’t ‘Who won?’ It was just, ‘Did you play? Did you have fun? Cool.’ ” The elder John didn’t provide his son with any personal coaching until John began to show real promise on the mound late in high school.
Looking back, John is thankful his parents allowed him to develop as a player at his own pace, without pressure. A successful college and Minor League pitching career followed. “I fulfilled the dreams I had the way it’s supposed to happen. Not only was I healthy, I achieved some great things because of that approach.”
With today’s youth sports culture, “we’re being sold something. And it is that fear of missing out,” John says. “You’re not missing out on anything. Everything that lies in the development of a youth athlete is in your home. It’s not going to be in the travel team. It’s not going to be in the camp or clinic. And that’s empowering.”