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The Dark Side Of Youth Sports

Endangering Young Athlete's Health?

Another indicator of the crisis in youth sports is the high incidence of such problems as eating disorders, injuries, use of performance enhancing drugs, and alcohol abuse.

  • Eating Disorders: The number of athletes with eating disorders in some sports, such as wrestling, gymnastics, figure skating and diving is many times the usual rate in the general population. In one study of 695 male and female college athletes, 39% of the female athletes met the criteria for bulimia. The process is insidious. The longer young athletes remain involved in competitive programs, and the more pressure they are under to win, the greater the risk of such problems occurring.
  • Injuries And Overtraining: An estimated four million children seek treatment for sports injuries in hospital emergency rooms each year. Twice that number sees a primary care physician. There has been a steady increase in the number of overuse injuries caused when adults push young athletes too hard or too far in training. These overuse injuries are all preventable

  • Steroid Abuse: Children are not immune to the use of performance enhancing drugs. South African junior athlete Liza de Villiers was fourteen years old when she tested positive for anabolic steroid use in 1995 and banned from athletics for four years. In a recent survey of 965 students at four Massachusetts middle schools, researchers found that 2.7 percent of the youngsters were using steroids. This means that children as young as eleven, in sixth grade, are using anabolic steroids to change their appearance and performance. It is impossible for children in this age to be obtaining such substances without the assistance of adults. It is hard to imagine the pressures being placed on children who begin these dangerous practices at such a young age. It suggests to me that the crisis we are facing is getting worse, not improving.

  • Alcohol abuse: The statistics on alcohol abuse among student athletes are alarming. In one study intercollegiate athletes were found to have the highest rates of binge drinking of any group of students. In another study, male high school student athletes in a middle class community were found to have rates of alcohol use than other students. (There were no differences between female athletes and non-athletes). Many sports have a long tradition of promoting alcohol consumption on a social basis (such as keg parties).

These serious health problems would be cause for concern even if they affected only older, more committed athletes. But when we see evidence that these problems are filtering down to children in high school and even middle school, we should be deeply concerned. No trophy or medal or national championship is worth destroying the health of even one child.


Sexual Abuse Of Young Athletes

One of the worst violations of trust we place in the youth sports system is when young athletes are sexually abused. Coaching youth athletes is an important responsibility precisely because coaches are in a position of power in their relationships with children and adolescents. Coaches who abuse that power and have sex with young athletes are a very small minority (although, due in part to the shame and secrecy associated with such abuses of power, it is hard to know how extensive the problem is). Their existence requires that parents keep a watchful eye on their children. Parents who shirk their responsibilities for their child and allow the young athlete to live with, or be in the care of, a top coach may be making a much more serious mistake than the overinvolved parent.