In the overheated world of youth sports, it's come to this: a gene test that claims to predict whether a child is more likely to become an endurance athlete like Lance Armstrong or a sprinter like Dara Torres. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, some parents are paying $149 for the test in an attempt to get their kids matched with the sports at which they're most likely to succeed. My favorite part of the story quotes Donna Campiglia, mother of Noah, discussing her favorable opinion of the test:
"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it's good to match them with the right activity," Ms. Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder Indoor Soccer in which Noah struggled to take direction from the coach between juice and potty breaks.
Noah is struggling to take direction on his game, by the way, because he's 2½.
Putting aside the question of whether the gene test actually predicts performance—experts quoted in the story say innate athletic ability is a lot more complicated than the variation in one gene—it's up for debate whether specializing in one sport as a kid is a good idea. Remember the three-sport high school varsity athlete? That athletic ideal, typified by Michael Jordan (who played baseball, football, and basketball), has been replaced by the kid who latches on to a sport in elementary school and pursues it vigorously—via school teams, club teams, and all-star traveling leagues—to the exclusion of others. "It's not uncommon to see [young people] playing one sport for three seasons, plus summer camp," says Mininder Kocher, the associate director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Children's Hospital Boston. The role model for these kids (and their parents) is Tiger Woods, who famously shot a 48 over the first nine holes of a California golf course at the age of 3 and never looked back.
But that kind of early, intense specialization contributes to the appearance of overuse injuries formerly seen only in adult and pro athletes. Youths and teens never used to need "Tommy John" surgery, to repair the elbow's ulnar collateral ligament, but thanks to year-round play and hundreds of pitches in a season, now some do. Another condition that rears its head is osteochondritis dissecans, an overuse problem of the knee and, less frequently, the ankle and elbow. It can result in loose bone or cartilage fragments floating around in the joint. It's more common in football and soccer players, says Kocher. And on top of the physical injuries, there's often mental burnout to contend with.
As Michael Sokolove, author of Warrior Girls, told me in August, the overarching solution is to reform the single sport culture and focus more on developing all-around athleticism, which is its own form of natural injury prevention. Minus that, kids and teens can protect themselves—with their parents' and coaches' support and help—by making sure their technique is correct. (Many young pitchers, says Kocher, are getting power from their arms rather than their trunk and legs.) Strength training, the pediatric and sports medicine experts say, is fine for kids when done correctly and may prevent injury as well as improve performance, says Kocher. Some research suggests that a warm-up specifically targeted at injury prevention can work, at least in the case of female soccer players attempting to avoid injury to their legs' anterior cruciate ligament.
And the severity of many overuse injuries can be lessened by resting and getting treatment or physical therapy as early as possible, before the injury gets worse. "If there is pain, swelling, or a limp, that is not normal," says Kocher.