(Who knew the Phoenix has risen?)
NOT SO FAST
A recent Sunday saw two 15 year-old girls tear ACL’s. For each it was their second such injury.
As a specialty, Pediatric Sports Medicine dates only to 1975. It is now one of the fastest growing medical fields, with treatment for broken arms and sprained ankles being overtaken by a wave of serious soft tissue injuries. The epidemic, for that is what it has become, is driven by a toxic mix of overtraining, early specialization in a single sport, diminished free time play, downsizing of Physical Education programs in schools, inadequate provisions for rest and recovery and the failure of youth sports organizations to provide meaningful injury prevention programs.
Consider knees. Female college athletes, especially those who played soccer or basketball used to have a near monopoly on ACL and meniscus tears. Such injuries now are not uncommon in girls as young as 12, are widespread by 16. The boys are catching up. In many instances (notably among people who are neither suffering the injury, financing its repair or dealing with a caged beast for 4-6 months), these injuries are considered as just a “cost of doing business.”
The response of U.S. Soccer to this: a new Girls Developmental Academy (D.A.) program for girls that will have these teen athletes training 4-5 times a week, 10 months a year.
Where do we invest in orthopedic surgery futures?
All the evidence points to a significant increase in such injuries with the training regimen planned for D.A. teams. In addition, this program plans to adopt FIFA substitution rules (3 subs, no re-entry). This will further multiply the risk factors by asking athletes to play full-out for 90 minutes when they are still a decade away from the average age of peak performance. (The alternative, learning to play with less than your full effort to conserve energy, is almost equally foolish.)
The D.A. model comes with a number of other practices that should have athletes and their parents asking serious questions. First among them are the restrictions placed on the athletes. High school soccer is forbidden, as are activities such as ODP, “without written permission from the Development Academy staff.” Statements from D.A. leadership that these girls can opt out of the DA during the HS season appear less than forthright. (The logistical difficulties aside, it is certainly NOT allowed in the boys’ programs here – any player who wants to retain the option of playing with her school should be certain up front that this choice will truly exist and be honored at her club.)
Those kinds of restrictions might be justified where a club covers a player’s expenses in return for exclusive control of an athlete’s time. “My money, my rules,” if you will. Otherwise it’s just nuts.
In Colorado a March girls HS game on a weekday in Buena Vista will draw more spectators than the most recent U18-19 State Cup final, played on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. Nothing better illustrates the central flaw in the D.A. model: the loss of peer affirmation for high school kids who are soccer players. Should they choose to play D.A., athletes forfeit the recognition that comes from playing - and usually leading - the HS team. And given the training schedule, D.A. membership de facto prohibits participation in any activities – other sports, school plays, band, debate, DECA, etc – that happen outside of school hours. The high school experience is largely reduced to being in the building from 8:45 to 2:45, denying these athletes the opportunities to be leaders in their respective schools and role models for their teammates in sports and other activities.
A 10-month regimen of soccer five days a week plus games for middle and high school age kids may work for a very, very few. But there’s little compelling evidence it is driving significant improvement in the men’s game and even less that U.S. Soccer’s leadership on the women’s side has solutions to the steadily diminishing ability of the youth national teams to compete among the best at the international level. (Hint: it’s not going to be fixed if you’re starting with 14 year-olds.)
Fortunately for female players, a viable, established alternative exists since most of the clubs that have signed on for the D.A. have retained their membership in the Elite Clubs National League, the ECNL.
Kids need to have time that allows them opportunities for other sports, interests, activities and friendships that bring texture and equilibrium to their lives. The ECNL has implemented a model that generally allows for such balance (including a coexistence with most high school soccer programs and significant stretches of necessary down time for the athletes) that the D.A. model decidedly does not.
Nothing we have seen suggests that the Girls Developmental Academy will be a significant upgrade over the ECNL, merely that it will be just more of the same with the same coaches. In addition, we are concerned that increased top-down control by U.S. Soccer will actually stifle the more creative and effective practices of the clubs involved.
One also wonders how this will impact the college selection process. The ECNL’s series of showcase events is a wonderfully efficient way to see and be seen for college coaches and prospective student athletes respectively. That does not seem to be part of the D.A., program.
Parents need to take greater ownership in this. They may need to disabuse some folks of the notion that customers serve the club – or the Federation - while also reasserting their roles as educated consumers. That certainly includes the option to “just say no” to an ill-conceived idea that both increases the risk of injury that clubs cannot currently control and would limit access to so many activities that provide young people with so many opportunities for personal growth.
(For the best treatment of the issue of sports injuries in female high school and college athletes, get ahold of a copy of Warrior Girls by Michael Sokolove.)