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Dr. James Andrews, on preventing youth sports injuries: Take time off, don't specialize

One of the nation's foremost sports orthopedic surgeons said Wednesday night in Orlando that the best medicine to help prevent youth sports injuries is to avoid playing year-round and not to specialize in one sport. And don't approach a child's athletic pursuits like he is a miniature version of Tom Brady or LeBron James. "Don't treat 6- and 7-year-old kids like they're professional athletes,'' Dr. James Andrews told an audience of about 100 at Florida Hospital Orlando.

"They're not ready for that level of high-intensity training.'' Andrews, 73, has operated on many top professional athletes and is the team doctor for several franchises, including the Tampa Bay Rays. He was in Central Florida as part of the hospital's Distinguished Lecture Series and in support of his book, "Any Given Monday,'' about how to avoid injuries in youth athletes.

During his presentation, Andrews revealed between 30 million and 45 million youths participate in sports. He said youth sports are the leading cause of adolescent injuries, with 3.5 million children under the age of 14 being treated for sports-related injuries annually.

Dr. James Andrews, the noted sports surgeon, spoke about youth-sports injuries at Florida Hospital Orlando as part of the hospital's Distinguished Lecture Series. (Charles King/Orlando Sentinel)

With so many injuries, one of the best ways to protect youths is by teaching proper technique, Andrews said. He suggested young football players should be taught to tackle and block with their heads up. In baseball, Andrews advised against allowing youths to begin throwing curveballs — even with good pitching mechanics — until after they have gone through puberty so their bones and muscles are more mature.

Most important, Andrews said overworking a youth's developing body by having him or her play a single sport year-round can create problems. He advocated against allowing them to play in multiple leagues at once.

"They should have at least two months off, preferably 3-4 months of each year and to not be throwing a baseball or overhead sport so their body has time to recuperate," Andrews said.

Besides the issues with injuries, another risk factor is prevalent in youth sports, Andrews said. He said 60 percent to 70 percent of children drop out of sports by the age of 13 because of parental, peer or coaching pressure.

"Let your kid do what's fun and enjoy playing youth baseball, for goodness sakes," Andrews said.

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