Youth Sports Grind Is Tough on Body, Spirit
At age 10, David Castleton joined a basketball team that traveled the country. By 12, he could name the amino acids needed to perfect his physique. By 14, he was seeing separate trainers for conditioning, basketball shooting, football passing, speed and mental toughness.
He repeated eighth grade, not because he failed his classes, he says, but to give him an extra year of drills and discipline, allowing him to dominate as a freshman quarterback at powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana.
A childhood forged in athletics left Castleton, now 21, an elite athlete and earned him a scholarship to Brigham Young University, a storied football program that has ushered a series of quarterbacks into the NFL.
It also left him physically battered--by his senior year at Mater Dei, he had dislocated his shoulder five times and undergone two surgeries--and emotionally spent, without a taste for a “normal” adolescence. His back wrenched, his spirit trampled, Castleton quit before playing a game at BYU.
He’s now playing for Orange Coast College, again pursuing a scholarship although his father could afford to send him to any school in the country.
“I was a big shot in high school,” says Castleton, who routinely jetted from summer tournaments in Arizona to scrimmages in Southern California while at Mater Dei. “I thought I would go to college and be the man. I was completely wrong. Things got totally turned upside down.”
From the plush soccer fields of San Diego to the polished basketball courts of Santa Barbara, the quest for profit and the demands of ambition have ratcheted youth athletics to new heights. Many fear this must-win mania is spiraling out of control, damaging the games and, in some cases, the kids who play them.
Soccer fields are sprinkled with kids who have shiny surgery scars burrowed along their knees. Parents ask surgeons to make their daughters’ pelvises more flexible, a crucial advantage for elite gymnasts. Pitchers destroy their arms by seventh grade, while their parents shun doctors’ recommendations for surgery because it could tarnish their son’s athletic resume.
And 80-pound fourth-grade football players diet before “weigh day” so they can make lower divisions, ensuring themselves stardom among younger kids.
“You see ones that are skinny as a rail,” says Warren Ferguson, a Pop Warner Football commissioner in Los Angeles and Orange counties. “It’s hard to watch.”
A Times analysis compiled through interviews with hundreds of coaches, parents, league officials and players concluded that Southern Californians spend more than $1 billion per year on elite youth athletics.
There is no question that the money has driven many kids’ skill levels to unprecedented heights, bringing not only self-esteem and fitness but also the occasional tournament trophy and college scholarship.
However, the soaring talent level among Southern California’s child-athletes is a bitter pill--even among people like Don Ebert, who makes a very good living off the industry.
“Is it working? Yes. At what cost to the player and the family? That’s the gray area,” says Ebert, a former U.S. national soccer team captain and current director of coaching for the Irvine Strikers, one of Southern California’s premier club teams. “Everyone should be concerned about the breaking point. It’s gone haywire.”
An Epidemic of Injuries
It’s tough to measure the impact of the new age in youth athletics in broken hearts.
Measuring the impact in broken bones is easier.
According to a poll conducted for The Times, 41% of Orange County parents whose children are involved in organized athletics say at least one of their kids has been injured during competition or training.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation estimated that as of 1997, injuries to child athletes nationwide cost $3.78 billion annually--a 650% increase in 17 years, with much of the medical care subsidized by the public.
Meanwhile, the number of kids who are being treated for overuse injuries--slow-building stress fractures, for example, or chronic muscle tears that come from throwing too many passes or pitches--is skyrocketing, says Rita Glassman, spokeswoman for the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation in Boston.
The rate of those injuries, because they do not require immediate attention, has not been measured yet by activists or the government. But Glassman says the injuries are of “epidemic proportion.”
Anaheim Angels medical director Lewis Yocum, who has worked with hundreds of elite athletes, has performed “Tommy John” surgery--reconstructing an elbow ligament using a wrist tendon--on baseball players as young as 16. “The standard line of every parent that comes into our office is: ‘You don’t understand how talented my kid is,’ ” he says.
But many parents reject doctors’ recommendations for surgery because they don’t want to tarnish their child’s hope of a scholarship with a scar--either a literal or a figurative one, Yocum says. So seventh- and eighth-grade kids, whose bones are growing improperly because they’ve played too much baseball, for example, are shunning low-risk corrective surgery for simple remedies of ice and anti-inflammatories.
Many of those kids may be unusually susceptible to arthritis later in life.
“They don’t want their kids to have a scar, sometimes to the detriment of the kids,” Yocum says. “Some of these . . . are potentially lifelong problems.”
Sports orthopedists say the pursuit of a physical advantage extends, in rare cases, even to altering a child’s body. Three surgeons said they rejected parental requests for operations to make their gymnast daughters more flexible.
Jim McDonough still doesn’t know the long-term effects of his devotion to field hockey.
The Ventura High sophomore, who has played the game half his life, is about 5 feet 10. During the hundreds of field hockey games he’s played, Jim, a member of the under-16 U.S. national team, has sprinted, dribbled and thwacked the ball while stooped over a three-foot-long wooden stick.
By January 1998, Jim had spondylolysis--a stress fracture in his fifth vertebra. His Thousand Oaks doctor, Mel Hayashi, says the game’s awkward positioning led steadily to the injury. Weeks after he was sidelined, Jim, now 16, began hearing from his coaches. “They kind of suck you in and get you to come right back in there,” he says.
Jim says that Shiv Jagday, head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, “likes calling us ‘Tiger’ and stuff. He says things to my mom like: ‘When is my tiger coming back out?’ ”
Jagday, 51, a former coach of the Canadian national team, concedes that the “name of the game is to perform under pressure.” But he says he would never urge any players to return too quickly from injuries. He says those decisions are made purely on a medical basis.
In November 1998, Jim tried to return, traveling to the Netherlands to play in a field hockey tournament. During that tourney his back pain became worse--and he hasn’t played in a match since.
“My back just couldn’t take it,” he says.
Jim is hardly alone.
Two years ago, Matt Leinart was playing in a baseball tournament where a New York Yankee scout had shown up to track some other players. But when Matt’s 85-mph fastball starting thwacking into the catcher’s glove and his change-ups started making batters look downright silly, the scout asked Matt’s father, Robert J. Leinart, if his son could join the Yankees’ winter scout team.
“Everybody we talked to told him he could go anywhere he wanted to in baseball,” says Leinart, a Santa Ana salesman.
Matt was just 14. Today, everything has changed.
Weeks after the exchange with the scout, Matt’s shoulder began to ache. His father thought it was tendinitis, but an MRI revealed a tear in a muscle in his shoulder, plus loose ligaments. He was forced to undergo surgery, and today, trying to avoid permanent injury, he’s given up baseball altogether.
“I really didn’t think we were over-pitching him,” says Robert Leinart, who generally held his son to 85 pitches per seven-inning game. “But it was just too much. They are young. Their muscles aren’t developed enough. I wouldn’t do the same thing over again. If I could do it over, I wouldn’t let him play year-round.”
A high school junior today, Matt is developing into a star quarterback at Mater Dei. He still hopes to earn a college scholarship and, possibly, pursue a career in professional sports.
“He loves football,” Robert Leinart says. “But it’s totally different. It’s like starting over.”
For Some, It All Pays Off
For some kids, the years of training, the 50 weekends a year of softball or basketball or baseball tournaments, the thousands of dollars spent on trainers, sports psychologists and dietitians, pay off with college scholarships or pro contracts.
When he was 7, Pat Manning spent his evenings in an Anaheim park, whacking his father’s pitches harder and farther than other kids his age. At 12, he took private lessons from former Angel and baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew. At 18, he swatted 12 home runs for Mater Dei as the school captured the league championship.
And last summer, after a three-hour negotiating session at his Anaheim Hills home, he signed with the Atlanta Braves for $750,000.
“From an early age, you know if you have it or not,” he says. “Everything kind of fell into place.”
Irvine’s Natasha Watley, now 18, joined Bobby Sox softball at 5 and “got more serious at 10.” Last summer, she was the youngest player invited to Olympic tryouts, and she grabbed a full scholarship to UCLA, a school she might never have reached academically.
Chelsea Trotter was 6 feet tall by the time she was in sixth grade. Stanford coaches started trailing her to tournaments when she was in eighth grade, and last fall, the San Dimas teen signed her letter of intent to play basketball there.
Beyond stories like those, stories that grab headlines, stories of glamour and riches, there are thousands more kids who feel their lives have improved dramatically because of athletics.
Child athletes are more active, spend more time running and less time playing video games or watching TV. They meet more kids, learn what it means to play on a team and often spend more time with their parents--even if it’s just driving to and from practices and games--than kids who don’t play sports. In high school, teenagers have to maintain solid grades to stay on the team, and in college, student-athletes typically graduate at higher rates than other students.
For years, Suzette Oden has spent her precious few hours of spare time sitting right where she was on a recent Saturday night: In the bleachers of a Southern California gym, watching her 16-year-old son, Jeremiah Phillips, play basketball. Even when she’s home in Hesperia, the elementary school teacher has tried to sleep, tried to read, tried to talk on the phone through the thumping of basketballs bouncing off two rims outside her bedroom.
It is a sweet, sweet sound--because it means Jeremiah is safe.
“I’d rather hear that ball bouncing than anything else in the world,” Oden says as her son, a 6-foot-5 center-forward, dumped in nine points at the Long Beach Fall Classic. “I could be hearing the phone ring instead--when he’s calling to tell me he’s in trouble.”
Moments like that make it hard for Brian Gimmillaro, the coach of Cal State Long Beach’s national champion women’s volleyball team, to see the negative aspects of the explosive growth in youth athletics--even if kids burn out by the time they hit puberty.
“They’re in shape,” he says. “They’re disciplined. They’ve formed good characteristics for their future. They make lifelong friends. They have so much fun when they are on the road at these tournaments. What’s the fallout?”
Despair at Not Making the Cut
The fallout continues for former Mater Dei standout David Castleton.
He and his father Stan, an Irvine developer who owns the Anaheim Hilton, now question whether it was worth mortgaging his childhood for stardom.
“You look back on it . . . and wonder whether I was trying to live my own dreams through him or whether it was to his benefit,” says Stan Castleton, who worries that his son may have peaked as a high school sophomore. “We would negotiate where David was for every hour of every day of summer.”
Was spending his childhood with personal trainers instead of playmates something Dave wanted to do?
“I had nothing to say about it,” Dave says. “My dad says; ‘You’re going to that one, and you’re going to that one. And I was, like . . .”
“I didn’t realize what it would do to his perspective,” Stan says. “Athletics became too important. He loved it. He just loved it. As a parent, what do you do?”
The fallout also continues for Cindy and Fred Hebein.
The couple thought Yorba Linda, a sports hotbed that sent a team to the 1995 Little League World Series, would be the perfect place to raise their child athletes. But when the Hebeins moved two years ago from Mount Washington in Los Angeles, their son Chris found himself unable to make Esperanza High School’s soccer or baseball teams.
Though he’d played both sports most of his life, Chris was aced out by kids who had joined the youth sports machine earlier--kids who had been trained by an army of coaches and specialists. The Hebeins quickly ushered Chris into weekly lessons with batting and pitching coaches friendly with the high school coach. But it was too late. They were confronted with an increasingly common suburban conundrum: Even many experienced, talented athletes can’t make high school teams anymore.
“It hasn’t given him a place to be in high school,” Cindy Hebein says.
When Nathan Wannlund, who started playing soccer when he was 6 and joined an elite club team at 10, shanked a penalty kick over the goal, it cost his team the game at a key tournament in Pleasanton. It was hardly the shot heard ‘round the world--but the consequences would reverberate for years to come.
His teammates shunned him after the kick. His confidence shattered, he missed another at the next tournament. At the beginning of the next season, he was unceremoniously dropped from the team--a privilege for which his father had paid about $3,000 over two years. He quit soccer for good months later.
He was just 12.
Nathan is just now, eight years later, getting back into competitive sports--if you can call it that, since he’s playing intramural “inner-tube water polo” at UC Davis.
“He was never the same,” says Art Wannlund, the head of the Orange County YMCA. “You either perform or you get replaced. They run these things just like professional leagues. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the pressure. There really was no team at all.”
Moms and dads are no longer sideline fans who provide orange slices at halftime--many have become politicians, wining and dining coaches to buy their child playing time or ensure their child will play in a high-profile position such as quarterback or shortstop.
Says Bob Crowell, a longtime club volleyball coach in Downey: “It’s parent/agent. That’s what it’s become in the past few years.”
Consider what happened after a 12-and-under all-star team was chosen in one Orange County softball league last summer.
The mother of the first alternate, also a member of the Bobby Sox board of directors, telephoned the mother of a player who had made the team, ostensibly to congratulate her. The caller described the burden supposedly faced by the all-stars: a rigorous practice schedule, including daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. workouts. It was a lie.
“She makes up this whole bunch of malarkey,” says Michael Severson, a Bobby Sox administrator. “The mother says: ‘Wow. I don’t know if I want my daughter spending so much time doing that.’ ”
The alternate’s mother persuaded the all-star’s mother to withdraw her daughter from the team, creating a vacancy. Suddenly, the alternate was an all-star.
After that incident, the league instituted a rule that no girl can be taken off an all-star team without the full board’s knowledge. The rule book is growing rapidly: Severson says it’s just one of the “yuck stories” he wades through each day.
Says Dr. George A. Selleck, a sports psychologist and former Stanford basketball player: “I’m hearing more and more coaches at all levels say they wish every kid came from an orphanage.”
Some coaches and sports officials are asking the question: Is the club sports machine good for kids?
Many bemoan what they call an absurd consequence of the new industry--that competition for scholarships and glory is forcing children to choose a year-round “specialty” sport before they finish elementary school.
“If they wait until they’re 12, it’s too late,” says Virgil Lewis, executive director of U.S. Soccer, the sport’s governing body.
That’s a tragedy, says Hunter Temple, headmaster of Brentwood School in Los Angeles.
“Maybe I’m kind of a dinosaur,” Temple says. “But when the leaves turned gold you played football. When it got cold outside you went inside to play basketball. And when the grass turned green again you played baseball. That’s the way America used to be. No longer. It’s hard to get students even involved in two sports anymore, and it’s such a crying shame. I bleed for the lost opportunities.”
Others, including high school and college coaches, fear players are hitting their ceiling as athletes too young--and recruiters are less likely to take them as a result.
“There are kids who come into high school who have already played 250 games before they even step on the high school gym floor,” says Villa Park High School basketball Coach Kevin Reynolds. “They’ve played more games than my varsity seniors.”
The paradox for those coaches is that there are many more highly trained, highly skilled athletes to choose from--and fewer kids who have maintained a passion for their sport, the sort of heart that, they say, wins the big games.
“There are a lot less kids who play for the love of the game and those are the kids I want,” says Janet Sherman, head coach of Cal State Northridge’s softball team, as she spent a hot October Saturday checking out players at tournaments in Tustin and Lancaster. “Somebody who was going to lessons when they were 7, and they’re still going to lessons now--they’re one-dimensional players.”
Scott Borchart, a 6-foot-9 junior at Chaminade High in West Hills, has a national reputation in basketball and has received recruiting letters from such top basketball programs as UCLA and the University of Kansas.
He, too, turned his back on the machine. Top-rated among sophomores in California last year, he turned down an offer to play in France with an elite club team. Then he quit club basketball altogether and refused to attend any camps last summer. By some accounts, it is unprecedented for a basketball player of his caliber to shun the club system, but Scott was afraid that if he didn’t slow down, he’d quit forever.
“They thought I was crazy turning down France,” he says. “I wasn’t happy playing basketball. If I kept playing club, I felt I wouldn’t enjoy it and wouldn’t want to play anymore as soon as I got to college.”
He is suffering the consequences of that decision. Nationally, he has dropped below players with less talent.
“I think his visibility as being a highly recruited kid has kind of slowed down because no one got to evaluate him this summer,” says Dana Pump of Double Pump Inc., a Chatsworth-based recruiting service and organizer of club tournaments.
In club programs, Scott says, “You get on a team with the best players in the area and you play against the best players in the country. It does a lot for you. It gets you exposure to all the coaches. You play year round and never stop. But you lose your childhood.”
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Injuries and Sports
The cost of sports injuries suffered by children has soared over the last 20 years. In 1982, a survey estimated the nationwide costs of children’s sports injuries at $581 million per year. Data collected by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, obtained by The Times, put those costs at $3.78 billion today, including medical, legal and liability costs. A breakdown of the costs associated with injuries to children 14 and under in 1997, the latest year for which data was available:
TOTAL AVERAGE LEGAL AND EIMATED MEDICAL MEDICAL LIABILITY NUMBER COSTS COST PER COSTS SPORT OF CASES in millions CASE in millions Archery 1,857 $1.60 $861.60 $.09 Baseball 252,665 $227.97 $902.26 $10.63 Basketball 574,434 $428.57 $746.07 $22.93 Bicycling 901,716 $1,290.00 $1,430.60 $46.40 Boxing 1,953 $1.81 $926.78 $.10 Diving 12,678 $17.33 $1,366.93 $.63 Football 448,244 $432.82 $965.59 $22.76 Gymnastics 75,135 $63.92 $850.73 $3.48 Field hockey 6,081 $3.56 $585.43 $.18 Ice hockey 22,206 $16.60 $747.54 $.91 Street hockey 5,739 $6.44 $1,122.15 $.35 Horseback riding 35,106 $69.10 $1,968.32 $2.74 Martial arts 16,602 $9.88 $595.11 $.65 Ice skating 41,438 $47.10 $1,136.64 $2.07 In-line skating 175,471 $215.50 $1,228.12 $10.24 Roller skating 91,802 $84.03 $915.34 $4.30 Snow skiing 34,418 $42.58 $1,237.14 $2.14 Soccer 227,157 $178.69 $786.64 $10.35 Swimming 60,296 $55.29 $916.98 $1.96 Tennis 11,858 $9.14 $770.79 $.48 Track and field 20,190 $16.88 $836.06 $.98 Trampoline 206,878 $219.08 $1,058.98 $11.56 Volleyball 50,178 $28.09 $559.81 $1.67 Weightlifting 32,154 $22.74 $707.22 $1.27 Wrestling 48,214 $38.79 $804.54 $2.39
Note: Figures were gathered through a sample of hospital emergency departments using the safety commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. The figures were expanded to include treatment in emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics and other medical facilities nationwide.
Source: National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
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About This Series
* Sunday: The sports that children once played purely for fun have turned into a high-pressure, big-money pursuit, spawning a $1-billion-per-year industry in Southern California.
* Today: While the youth sports phenomenon has produced a generation of highly skilled athletes, injuries and early burnout are among its side effects.
* Tuesday: Young athletes from poorer areas miss out on the intense coaching and competition, and end up relegated to separate--and unequal--sports programs.
Times staff writers Bill Shaikin and Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.