The Risks Of Early Gymnastics Michael Sokolove discusses his new book, Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports. Sokolove believes pushing young girls to train and compete for sports, including gymnastics, can have serious health effects.
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The Risks Of Early Gymnastics

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The Risks Of Early Gymnastics

The Risks Of Early Gymnastics

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This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. At the Olympic Games in Beijing, the women's gymnastics individual all-around gold medal finals take place tonight. A lot of people are talking about how some of the Chinese athletes look too young.

BRAND: Being younger gives them a competitive advantage in gymnastics. The Chinese are insisting that the girls are the proper age, at least 16, to compete. Even so, what effects can gymnastics competing, or competing in any sport, have on such a young body? Michael Sokolove is the author of the new book, "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against The Injury Epidemic In Women's Sports." And welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL SOKOLOVE (Author, "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against The Injury Epidemic In Women's Sports"): Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about gymnastics first and talk about the age issue. Why would younger be better in terms of competing?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: First of all, it's the only sport that I know of that younger is better, certainly in the case of young women in gymnastics. They have a greater strength-to-weight ratio. You know, they're close to as strong as they are going to be and very light, which allows them to do all these fantastic acrobatics.

And also, and I think this may be as big a factor, if you're 16 or 15 or 14 or 13, as it's alleged that some of the Chinese girls are, you may not have as much fear of what may happen if some of these moves, some of these jumps, some of these dismounts don't go off as you hope they will.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about what can happen because these bodies, they're young bodies. They're small bodies. They're bodies that are still growing. And what kinds of effects can this very rigorous form of sport, of exercise, have on these bodies, especially when you look at them do those dismounts? They just land so hard on that mat.

Mr. SOKOLOVE: Well, you know, I think that gymnastics is in a category all its own. It is in some ways the sport that amounts to the slow or sudden accrual of stress fractures and tendon strains and ligament sprains and broken bones. To my eye, you know, a sort of bizarre sport in that way. They land from pretty high heights with stiff legs, with no support on their feet, either. I mean, it is - it's a sport that, if you almost wanted to see young athletes injured, you would sort of design gymnastics.

BRAND: And is that just for the girls, or are the boys affected, as well?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: I think that gymnastics is a very high injury sport for both boys and girls. I think one difference is that gymnastics at an elite level is not a women's sport. It's a girl's sport. And as women go through puberty, as they add weight, it's not a sport that they generally compete as well in.

BRAND: What about other sports? Are other sports - do they also confer some injuries to developing bodies?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: Well, absolutely. Boys and girls, men and women are different. They're different physically. They're different athletically. When boys go through puberty, when they move through their teens, they get stronger, often without much effort of their own. Girls do not get appreciably stronger, at least not without a lot of effort. But they do get more flexible.

So this combination of flexibility, but not always enough good old fashioned muscle to keep joints in stable positions, causes a range of injuries in joints, in knees, in hips, backs, across a range of sports. And that's what we're seeing on soccer fields on basketball courts. All across America and all across the world, girls do get injured more. It's not inevitable. There are things we can do about it. The first thing that has to happen is we have to recognize the differences.

BRAND: You know, I think a lot of us remember over the last few Olympics when Kerry struck - she was a U. S. gymnast - when she struck her landing on a vault with a broken ankle. What does that tell you about how girls compete and how they perform, even when they have injuries?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: It's interesting you ask that. Chelsea Memo (ph), in this most recent Olympics, has just done the same thing. A U.S. gymnast revealed that she competed with a broken ankle. You know, in the NFL, when you have a broken ankle, they put a cast on it. In women's gymnastics, they send you back out there to keep competing. And this may be defensible, I suppose, if you're a 20-year-old woman, and this is the choice you make, and there are gold medals at stake. There may be monetary rewards at stake.

I think the unfortunate thing is that that becomes the ethos for much younger girls, who get the idea that, you know, we're indestructible. We have to be tougher. Perhaps we have to prove our place, our bona fides on the athletic field by playing through pain. But there are limits, and I think we need to recognize this ethos to play on almost as a risk factor in and of itself.

BRAND: When girls injure themselves, either in gymnastics, in swimming, or in amateur sports, and they suffer injuries to their bones or to their joints, are those injuries going to be with them for a lifetime?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: Often, yes, they will be with them for a lifetime. We've improved surgeries for certain injuries. We haven't necessarily improved lifelong consequences. An example is the ACL injury, the tear, a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee, which is a stabilizing ligament. It's a tiny but crucial component.

Girls suffer this injury at much higher rates. The surgery gets an athlete back on the field much more quickly then we used to see, allows them to play their sport well again. But the ACL injury involves much greater risks of early onset arthritis, and if you do it again, which happens frequently, happens more frequently to young women, then those risks are even greater.

BRAND: So, you know, a lot of girls play soccer. A lot of parents like the fact that their girls are competing out there and getting great exercise and learning about getting along with teammates and all sorts of other benefits. What do you say to parents who are listening to this and thinking, am I putting my girl at risk by putting her out there on the soccer field?

Mr. SOKOLOVE: I would say a few things. First of all, exercise and fitness and high level elite sports are not necessarily the same thing. So we do have to understand that there are going to be risks the higher a girl rises in athletics or the higher a boy rises in athletics. But we have to mitigate those risks.

We protect our children in all kinds of ways, and in many ways, we overprotect them. In sports, we tend to do the opposite. We throw our children into sports programs where they play a year-round schedule, where they play one sport to excess and do not cross-train. We do all these things that experts unanimously say are the wrong things to do.

Yet, we want our children to excel. We want them to succeed. We want them to stay in the cohort of go-go teams, and many of these things are exactly what are injuring our kids. One of the things that I say is, parents need to come together. They need to bond together and demand sanity in our sport schedules. Because what we're doing right now is manufacturing injuries, and we are particularly manufacturing injuries among young women because of some of these physiological differences.

BRAND: Michael Sokolove is the author of the new book, "Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against The Injury Epidemic In Women's Sports." Thank you very much.

Mr. SOKOLOVE: Thank you, Madeleine.

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