Sam Bradford may be the top pick in the 2010 NFL draft, but he'll be the first to tell you that it wasn't just football that got him here. Bradford credits his involvement in multiple youth sports not only with honing his fundamental athletic skills, but also with keeping him from suffering his first major injury until college.
He's carrying that message over into a campaign to help young athletes find success and stay healthy. The STOP Sports Injuries Campaign, launched in April by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) in an effort to combat the rise in youth sports injuries, features several high-profile athletes, including Bradford, as spokespeople.
Campaign chairperson and AOSSM president Dr. James Andrews cites the escalation of sports injuries in children -- documented at more than 3.5 million injuries per year in children aged 14 years and younger, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) -- as a rallying cry for health care providers and role model athletes to speak out. By educating coaches, parents and youth athletes alike as to how to recognize risk factors and prevent injury, those involved in the STOP campaign hope to reverse this alarming trend.
To publicize the inaugural phase of the campaign, Dr. Andrews took to the road with two highly visible spokespeople: one approaching the twilight of his athletic career, John Smoltz, and the other, Bradford, just embarking on his professional path. This trio is certainly not lacking for recognition in the sports world. Andrews is a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon and perhaps the only sports medicine physician who has achieved the same celebrity status as many of the athletes he treats. Smoltz, an All-Star major league baseball pitcher, is transitioning to a new career in broadcasting after more than 20 years in the big leagues. Bradford, a Heisman Trophy winner for the Oklahoma Sooners, is the newly anointed quarterback for the St. Louis Rams.
All are committed to changing the current culture of youth sports that has injury rates nearing epidemic proportions.
STOP stands for Sports, Trauma and Overuse Prevention. While everyone acknowledges that injuries are an expected, if not unfortunate, byproduct of sports participation, this movement targets those injuries that can be prevented. The AAOS reports that overuse injuries account for nearly half of all injuries sustained by middle school and high school athletes. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) estimates that half of such overuse injuries are preventable. With the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimating that high school athletes alone account for approximately 2 million injuries per year, this means that nearly 500,000 injuries could be prevented annually, just within the high school population.
Why then do these injuries occur? There are numerous contributing factors. Andrews believes that the pressures of competition may discourage some children from speaking up when they have pain. Kids often fear that they might be perceived as less than tough, something that may result in less playing time along with disapproval from coaches, teammates or even parents.
In other instances, young athletes experience burnout by excessive involvement in a sport, which may manifest itself as injury. This presents a challenge for physicians when trying to evaluate the scope of the problem. Andrews says, "They [kids] are so pressured in today's social structure related to sports that they'll go see the doctor ... even consent to a surgical procedure, to get out of sports. That's how problematic this is."
The most common injuries affecting kids in sports are not unfamiliar. In the lower half of the body, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in the knee are the primary culprit, particularly in running and cutting sports. The most common serious overuse injury in overhead athletes occurs in baseball: the tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament that reinforces the inner aspect of the elbow. Disruption of the ligament requires reconstruction, now commonly known as Tommy John surgery, so named for the first professional pitcher who underwent the procedure. While these two examples may represent more extreme injuries that require surgery, there are many other types of injuries, especially of the "itis" variety (such as tendinitis and bursitis), which can be equally disabling. Chronic pain over an extended period of time can lead to long-term consequences for youth athletes including eventual exclusion from sports altogether.
According to AOSSM, the key to combating this trend in increased sports injuries is education. Recognition of early injury-warning signs is the responsibility of coaches and parents. Encouraging open communication among all parties so that a child can speak comfortably about an injury without fear of retaliation, like being benched or removed from a team, is critical. But there are also training elements that factor into injury prevention. Pre-participation physicals along with proper nutrition and hydration are critical. Cross-training and rest are just as important as sport-specific training in an athlete's success.
To that end, maintaining a diverse sports schedule is one of the many tools being recommended by those involved in this campaign.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Bradford was a multisport athlete throughout high school. In addition to football, he was a competitive basketball player and golfer. Bradford expects to continue playing golf as a means of balancing what he does on the gridiron. Although he no longer plays basketball competitively, he was talented enough in high school to play on the same AAU team with the Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin, the top pick in last year's NBA draft.
Bradford wasn't the only basketball player who transitioned to a different sport professionally. Smoltz said basketball was his first love as a kid growing up in Michigan, especially since he couldn't play baseball year-round because there were no indoor fields.
Fighting the perception that kids need to focus on one sport early in their development in order to be successful is just one of several myths the STOP campaign is trying to debunk. In fact, Bradford sees it as a detriment.
"I hear kids say all the time, they've played one sport since they were like 8 years old," Bradford said. "I just think they're missing out on so much."
To those who argue that kids need to focus on a single sport in order to have a chance at a college scholarship or a professional sports career, these athletes say otherwise.
"I can't tell you hardly any of my peers that I played with [who] didn't play two or three sports," Smoltz said.
And to those who suggest that taking time off from a sport such as baseball during the year is somehow a condemnation of participating in that sport, this group is equally prepared to respond.
"It's not that we're against playing baseball. We're against playing baseball 12 months out of the year, or even 10 months out of the year," Smoltz said. "By no means am I discouraging kids to play, but there has to be a transition into either another sport or some rest time to allow you to recover from that current sport."
The aim of those involved in this campaign is that by bringing attention to the matter, people will begin to take note of just how serious this issue truly is. Awareness of the problem will then hopefully lead to changes that yield a decrease in these types of injuries. Above all, they want young people to enjoy participating in sports because of the many benefits associated with athletic involvement.
As Andrews so emphatically exclaims, "I'm not against sports, believe me! But we've got to let kids go back to having fun. We talk about playing a sport, it should be 'playing' a sport."
For more information about the STOP Sports Injuries Campaign, visit their website at www.StopSportsInjuries.org.
Stephania Bell is a physical therapist who is a Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She is a clinician, author and teacher with extensive experience in the area of orthopedic manual therapy and sports medicine.