Bloomberg Wire Service – Jan 18, 2006 – Scott Soshnick – Every parent who has a child playing sports should spend a day with Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

If they watched Micheli poke and prod kids with scarred knees, elbows and psyches, perhaps mom and dad wouldn’t be so quick to press their children into competition.

“Let me use a clinical term to describe parents today,” says Kevin Leman, a psychologist in Tucson, Arizona, and the author of 28 books on family dynamics. “They’re nuts.”

That’s especially true when it comes to kids and sports, says Leman, whose take is buttressed by the endless x-rays and MRI scans examined by Micheli. Some 30 percent of Micheli’s visitors suffer from a preventable overuse injury called osteochondritis dissecans, or OCD, where a piece of cartilage or bone breaks off in a joint.

“Parents get so caught up in coaches telling them their kid is promising,” Micheli says. “Parents push more, the coaches push more and kids are reluctant to say anything. It can be catastrophic.”

You need only attend a youth soccer game to catch a parental meltdown. Fist fights in the stands aren’t unusual. Parents have even beaten referees senseless over perceived bad calls.

Need to Play

One of Micheli’s patients last week, a teenage girl who injured her hip on the basketball court, kept playing because a teammate fouled out and the coach said she was needed.

“She just NEEDED to play,” Micheli says after leaving the examination room, mimicking the overbearing parent’s explanation.

Another patient, a 17-year-old female distance runner and lacrosse player, feared disappointing her mother if she didn’t participate in a track and field event. She was there because her foot hurt. She was close to developing a stress fracture, Micheli told her.

Most troubling, though, was the 10-year-old boy, a soccer player, who already had been through OCD surgery on one knee. He was lucky this time around: no operation needed.

“He’s got what I call thick-chart syndrome,” Micheli says. “That’s when I’ve been seeing a patient for a while and the paperwork piles up.”

Micheli’s horror stories include a 9-year-old gymnast with a stress fracture in her back. He also treated a boy with soreness in both elbows. The boy’s father, it turns out, had the child throwing 50 pitches a night, left-handed and right-handed, on top of what he was already doing at practice and in games. Hard to believe his elbows hurt.

Lucky Ones

The kids who make it to Dr. Micheli might be the lucky ones.

While surgery certainly isn’t fun, at least it corrects the problem.

What about the kids whose problems are emotional, not physical? A limp is easier to spot than depression. There’s a good chance those kids will never reach someone like Dr. John F. Murray, a Palm Beach, Florida, sports psychologist who frets that parents are doing more harm than good.

“What is below the surface is much more pervasive and longer lasting than a twisted ankle or broken arm,” Murray says. “Kids will do anything to please their parents and coaches.”

{Note from Dr. Murray: The key here is balance. Parents need to be smart and to know that their kids play sports first for the love it. Scott does a great job in this article of showing the ugly side of youth sports and the dangers of pushing kids who don’t enjoy it, or acting without proper knowledge about injuries and limitations. This is an area where sport psychologists often help parents find a balance. Many kids do love their sports, and benefit from direction and a push at times. But irresponsible training that leads to injury or depression does nobody any good. If your kid truly loves it you know you’re doing a good job. Seek professional advice from a good coach, physician or sport psychologist if you have doubts}

Bob Boone has a unique perspective on sports and adolescence. Not only did his father, Ray, play Major League Baseball, but so do two of his sons, Aaron and Bret.

No Fun

According to Boone, his father never pushed him to play baseball, which is probably why he succeeded at it. Likewise, he never imposed his wishes on his kids. In fact, Aaron played basketball and football, along with baseball, through high school.

“If you put too much pressure on them it’s no fun for kids to play. It becomes work,” Boone says. “Not many people succeed in life without enjoying what they’re doing.”

Some kids are so desperate to stop playing that they fake injury.

There have been cases, Micheli says, where kids complain of chronic pain even though tests reveal there’s nothing physically wrong with them. It’s easier to fake an injury than to tell a parent who has spent time and money on private lessons that the desire to play has waned.

`Honorable Way’

“They use an injury as a way out,” Micheli says. “It’s the honorable way out, so to speak.”

Hard-core sports fans might remember the cautionary tale of Todd Marinovich, whose father, a former National Football League player, drilled his son from infancy to become a quarterback. Marinovich led the University of Southern California to the 1990 Rose Bowl as a freshman. Problems surfaced soon after. The kid who never tried junk food or watched cartoons was arrested on drug charges the following season. Repeated arrests ended his brief NFL career.

“Parents aren’t protectors today,” Leman says. “They’re pushers.”

Keep pushing and don’t be surprised if one day Dr. Micheli is pulling on your child’s knee and asking where it hurts.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.