While football holds its breath as youth participation continues to fall, basketball has no such worry. An estimated 10 million kids play youth basketball, making it the most popular youth team sport in America.
And therein lies the problem.
By its nature, basketball is a sport that can be played almost anytime and anywhere, which, as Baxter Holmes details for ESPN, has led to an “epidemic.” Starting at age 7, players can — and are often encouraged to by the system — essentially play basketball year-round, playing NBA schedules long before they get to the NBA. And that doesn’t include practice, weight training and work with specialized coaching.
By the time a 19-year-old gets to the NBA, he’s essentially an immaculately sculpted muscular system resting on top of a 40-year-old’s skeleton. His bones, joints and ligaments, worn down by years of wear and tear, can follow where their muscles take them.
“I have many kids who are going to go play in college next year,” says Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, the Director of Sports Medicine Research and Education at Emory Healthcare in the Atlanta area and one of the leading researchers on youth sports, “and this whole year has just been about trying to get healthy so they can step on that doorstep as a freshman and actually have a chance to participate.”
Says Jayanthi: “Kids are broken by the time they get to college.”
the highest priority for the league — and I think both in terms of the health and wellness of the players in the NBA, but also the larger category of millions of players, boys and girls, not just in the United States, but globally.”
It’s not just a problem at the NBA level, though. Holmes found one study that followed 1,200 youth athletes in the Chicago area for three years, splitting them into two groups: those who visited local sports medicine clinics to treat injuries, and those who visited for annual check-ups. The results were startling.
Their conclusion: Those who were highly specialized in one sport (at the exclusion of other sports) and played it year-round were at a significantly higher risk for serious overuse injuries, such as bone and cartilage injuries and ligament injuries. How much higher of a risk? About 125%.
Over-specialization is a multi-pronged issue that no one person, group or sport can fix, but leaves young athletes to suffer the consequences.