SAN DIEGO — Youth baseball coaches all over the country are having to walk a very thin line. That line involves pushing young players to become better athletes, and also making sure they are having fun and falling in love with sports in general.
As young athletes get older, and sports become more competitive – their health and safety are more at risk. The number of young athletes requiring surgery because they are pushed too hard – too young, is staggering. No one knows this better than the son of “Tommy John” – the legendary pitcher for the New York Yankees who had an elbow surgery named after him. The surgery is now so common, that the term ‘Tommy John surgery’ was added to the Webster’s Dictionary last week.
Dr. Tommy John is now making it his mission to prevent young athletes from needing the surgery that bears his fathers name.
Ever since he was 3-years old throwing walnuts under a tree in his yard, left hander Levi Hall, just loved the thrill of throwing. However, the El Camino High School junior says he hasn’t always been able to throw while being free of pain. Hall said that in the middle of his freshman year he had a significant amount of pain in his elbow and according to him, “there was no way he could throw with that amount of pain.”
Years and years of tossing and twisting had taken its toll on Levi’s elbow. Steve Hall, Levi’s father said his son’s ligament was so inflamed that if they kept going as normal it would have popped.
That is the issue that many young athletes are facing after pushing their bodies too hard at too young of an age. The repetitive throwing can damage the ulnar collateral ligament or “UCL” which eventually leads to Tommy John surgery.
In the surgery, the medial elbow is replaced with either a tendon from elsewhere in the body or from donated tissue.
The procedure is named after former baseball pitcher, Tommy John who was the first person to undergo the procedure all the way back in 1974.
Levi’s coach, Greg Atkinson, wanted to avoid Tommy John surgery for his freshman player so he stepped up to the plate. Atkinson said, “If they are talking about a pinching feeling in their back or a sharp pain in their knee, we have got to pay attention. Instead of medication and saying here are some pills to shut off the alarm system, we need to pay attention to that.”
Coach Atkinson introduced Levi to none other than Tommy John’s son, Dr. Tommy John. It turns out that Dr. Tommy John isn’t a fan of the surgery that was made popular by his father. He says that people should, “avoid the surgery at all costs.”
Dr. John said the most concerning thing is the age and frequency of the people getting the elbow surgery. He went on to say that there are players having the surgery two and three times and the majority of surgeries are being done on teens. According to Dr. John, over half of all the surgeries are being performed on kids ages 15-19. When kids that young are getting such a major surgery, Dr. John says the problem had to have started around ages six, seven or eight.
Dr. John has started calling it an epidemic saying that he has seen patients as young as nine years old come to him with torn ligaments. “The youth sports industry is now worth $17 billion. That means it is bigger than the NFL and now parents are racing to “keep up with the Joneses.”
Even though the surgeries are so prominent, there are things that parents can do to keep their kids on the playing field and not the operating table.
- Rethink how you look at youth sports - the research and the science says pushing kids too much at a young age doesn't give them a better chance for success.
- Kids need to rebuild their bodies. This can be done by getting kids off of electronics and getting them outside exercising naturally.
- Bodies need to be replenished by eating natural foods that heal the body.
Dr. John says the entire family needs to buy into these three steps.
Thankfully, Levi never needed Tommy John surgery. Dr. John focused on Levi’s nervous system and body movement which in turn eliminated pain and built strength.
As it turns out, having kids concentrate on a single sport all year round is not necessarily a recipe for success. Dr. John said, “If your kid is playing two, three, even four sports it is going to turn them into a better athlete. The more you can stay away from just one sport, the better. High school is really the only time you need to specialize, and even then, you don’t have to.”
Instead of focusing on the repetition and fundamentals in sports, Dr. John said the focus should be on one thing. Kids having fun.
Levi is hoping to get recruited by a Division 1 or Division 2 baseball school.
The conversation Tommy John had with his doctor before getting the surgery is fascinating. Along with the years that followed. Dr. John talks about those years with Eric.