Letters from Maine

Caring for the young elite athlete


Concerns about the potential harm resulting from overzealous training regimens and performance schedules for young elite athletes seems to come in cycles much like the Olympics. But, more recently, the media attention has become more intense fueled by the very visible psychological vulnerabilities of some young gymnasts, tennis players, and figure skaters. Accusations of physical and psychological abuse by team physicians and coaches continue to surface with troubling regularity.

A recent article in the Wall St. Journal explores a variety of initiatives aimed at redefining the relationship between youth sports and the physical and mental health of its elite athletes. (Louise Radnofsky, The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2022).

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

An example of the new awareness is the recent invitation of Peter Donnelly, PhD, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto and long-time advocate for regulatory protections for youth athletes, to deliver a paper at a global conference in South Africa devoted to the elimination of child labor. Referring to youth sports, Dr. Donnelly observes “What if McDonalds had the same accident rate? ... There would be huge commissions of inquiry, regulations, and policies.” He suggests that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child might be a mechanism to address the problem.

Writing in the Marquette University Sports Law Review in 2015, Kristin Hoffman, a law student at the time, suggested that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act or state child labor laws could be used to restructure sports like gymnastics or figure skating with tarnished histories. California law prohibits child actors from working more than 5 hours a day on school days and 7 hours on nonschool days but says little about child athletes. On paper, the National Collegiate Athletic Association limits college athletes to 20 hours participation per week but teenagers on club teams are not limited and may sometimes practice 30 hours or more.

Regulation in any form is a tough sell in this country. Coaches, parents, and athletes caught up in the myth that more repetitions and more touches on the ball are always the ticket to success will argue that most elite athletes are self-motivated and don’t view the long hours as a hardship.

Exactly how many are self-driven and how many are being pushed by parents and coaches is unknown. Across the street from us lived a young girl who, despite not having the obvious physical gifts, was clearly committed to excel in sports. She begged her parents to set up lights to allow her to practice well into the evening. She went on to have a good college career as a player and a very successful career as a Division I coach. Now in retirement, she is very open about her mental health history that in large part explains her inner drive and her subsequent troubles.

We need to be realistic in our hope for regulating the current state of youth sports out of its current situation. State laws that put reasonable limits on the hourly commitment to sports much like the California child actor laws feel like a reasonable goal. However, as physicians for these young athletes we must take each child – and we must remind ourselves that they are still children – as an individual.

When faced with patients who are clearly on the elite sport pathway, our goal is to protect their health – both physical and mental. If they are having symptoms of overuse we need to help them find alternative activities that will rest their injuries but still allow them to satisfy their competitive zeal. However, we must be ever alert to the risk that what appears to be unusual self-motivation may be instead a warning that pathologic obsession and compulsion lurk below the surface.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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