'Until It Hurts' Scrutinizes Youth Sports Obsession Summer Sundays are the time for Little League games, soccer games and swim meets — but could pushing sports too hard be bad for kids? Mark Hyman talks about his new book Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids.

'Until It Hurts' Scrutinizes Youth Sports Obsession

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Play ball.

(Soundbite of baseball being hit)

(Soundbite of people shouting)

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBERTS: That's the sound of parents cheering on their own little superstars. This scene is being played out on playing fields and skating rinks and swimming pools all over the country today.

It's actually kind of a Norman Rockwell image, but journalist Mark Hyman worries that all those adults on the sidelines may be ruining kids' sports. His new book is called "Until it Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids."

Mark Hyman joined me in the studio earlier this week, and he brought along his son, Ben, who was injured in his high school days playing baseball. Mark Hyman says kids' sports have changed in a couple of fundamental ways.

Mr. MARK HYMAN (Author, "Until it Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids"): The first is that the age of entry has dropped dramatically from, you know, even 20 or 30 years ago. In that past generation, it was typical for kids to start in sports at age seven or eight, sometimes nine. Now, that's almost mid-career for most kids.

It's very typical now for kids to start at four or five. And there's one youth soccer league, national youth soccer league, I write about in the book that starts at 18 months. I'm not sure exactly what 18 months are doing.

ROBERTS: Right, when you're the size of the soccer ball.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: That's right. That's the first big change. The second is this notion of specialization. Twenty or 30 years ago, kids move from sport to sport as the seasons change. Now, you might have, you know, a child playing soccer in the fall, involved in some kind of fitness training program in the winter, playing indoor soccer in the winter, taking private lessons from a college soccer coach in the summer, and the result of that is the kids are so much more skilled at their sports than they ever have been, but they're also so much more vulnerable to injury than they ever have been because they're doing the same thing over and over and over again.

ROBERTS: What sorts of (unintelligible) injuries are we talking about?

Mr. MARK HYMAN: Well, I mean, they vary from the stress fractures to growth plate injuries where, you know, the ends of a child's bones are not fused, they're soft. And if they're used over and over again, the soft part of the bone can pull away from the mature part. So, they can be very serious injuries.

ROBERTS: The other thing that struck me in the book was the comment that kids who play the Little League World Series don't go on to the big leagues. And it's not just injury, it's getting tired.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: Well, burnout is a big problem for kids. And the Little League World Series is a particularly fascinating case study, I think. I mean, I love the Little League World Series. I love watching it. But you're hard-pressed, or at least I was, to find a child psychologist who felt that it was an age-appropriate experience for an 11 or 12 year old to be playing baseball in front of 60 million people. You know, often, we're turning sports for kids into entertainment for adults.

ROBERTS: In addition to all this data and all these trends, you had your own personal reasons for writing this book.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: Yeah. I think I'm a fairly reasonable parent and was a reasonable youth sports coach, but I think we're all vulnerable to having moments that we regret. And when Ben was a youth sports pitcher, he was 14, I think, at the time, he came to me at the end of the season and said, you know, dad, my shoulder is just tired. It doesn't feel right.

And I was very focused on the playoffs and out-coaching the gastroenterologist who was on the other side of the field. And three days later, he was back out on the mound, and he was in the game for six pitches, and it was very clear to me he was injured. But it was a real wake-up call for me. I realized that at that point, the games had become more about me.

ROBERTS: But that wasn't Ben's last injury.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: No. Four years later, he was pitching in a high school game. And after the game, he came over to where my wife and I were standing, and he said, pointed to his elbow, and he said, dad, it's killing me. And a month later, we had the diagnosis, which was a ruptured UCL ligament in his elbow, and ultimately, he had an operation that we read a lot about on the sports pages called Tommy John Surgery.

ROBERTS: Ben, when you were playing youth sports, where do you think the pressure came from?

Mr. BEN HYMAN (Son of Mr. MARK HYMAN): Well, I don't think there was that much pressure on me. To say that all we want to do as kids is just participate and then get our trophy and go home ignores the fact that some kids, like me, enjoyed playing well and enjoyed having that success right along with the coaches.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: I think I've just been contradicted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: By your own son, that's shocking.

Mr. BEN HYMAN: I don't think I did contradict you, actually.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: No, I don't think so either. But Rebecca, I think that the problems arise when we kind of lose sight of the fact that, you know, sports for kids is not a career path. It's not a stepping stone to some, you know, greater goal financially or otherwise or even a college scholarship.

So, I think we've constantly got to be re-evaluating whether child sports activities are about them or about our ambitions for them.

ROBERTS: Ben, will you let your kids play sports?

Mr. BEN HYMAN: Yes. There's a way to do this so that your kids have a positive experience and the parents do the right thing. I don't think the message here is that we should ban youth sports. I think my experience generally was positive playing youth sports.

ROBERTS: Mark Hyman's book is called, "Until it Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms Our Kids." His son, Ben, plays baseball for George Washington University's club team here in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for being here.

Mr. BEN HYMAN: You're welcome.

Mr. MARK HYMAN: Thank you.

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