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Let's Get Physical

It's not just for boys anymore. Girls are running and kicking on soccer fields like never before--and that's leading to an increase in injuries.

March 03, 1997|VICTOR MERINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During a soccer tournament in Orange County, 15-year-old Hilary races from her sweeper position to head the ball out of danger--but not before an onrushing player launches a high kick, breaking Hilary's nose and leaving the imprint of lace marks across her face.

That same weekend, at another soccer tournament in Arizona, Hilary's 13-year-old sister quickly passes to a teammate, only to be hit hard by a player who arrives late and misses the ball--but not Kali's ankle. The tibia and fibula are snapped and the growth plate is fractured.

Within days, both sisters are reunited in California, recuperating in separate hospital rooms after undergoing surgery.

As both a soccer coach and their father, I am left to ponder: What in the HMO is going on here?

What is happening is that the soccer field is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for female athletes, whose numbers are expanding in the popular sport. As women and girls become more commonplace on the field, so are the scenes of these athletes draped with slings, wrapped in medical tape, and hobbled by casts and crutches.

According to the Soccer Industry Council of America, last year there were 7.3 million female soccer players ages 6 and older, representing a 30% increase over the last five years.

While there is a scarcity of medical data to confirm a rise in injuries, anecdotal evidence has been sufficient to lead to a study to determine the extent and circumstances of injuries to young patients at his clinic, says Dr. Lyle J. Micheli, director of sports medicine at Boston Children's Hospital and the past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"I think there is a rate of increase in soccer injuries to young people, particularly among girls," Micheli says.

Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, an orthopedic surgeon and physician for the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team, says his Santa Monica practice is also seeing a surge in injured young athletes--particularly knee injuries among females.

Even without concrete numbers, the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation has issued a fact sheet that bluntly concludes: "Girls generally suffer more injuries of all types in soccer than boys."

Rita Glassman, associate executive director for the nonprofit foundation, said the intent is not to scare away females from soccer. "My feeling is that it is a wonderful opportunity for girls. They belong in sports and deserve the right to play . . . but we just need to be more sensitive to the individual risk factors."

These injuries among female players should come as no surprise given the mushrooming population of girls and women who have been drawn to the sport.

A new generation of female soccer players has been spurred, in part, by the success of American women winning the 1991 world championship in China and capturing the Olympic gold medal last summer in Atlanta. Others have been enthused by plans for a new women's professional soccer league.

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Mike Sais, a 17-year veteran soccer coach, has led both recreational and competitive teams. Still, "I have never had a season like this," he says.

Sais, of Torrance, coaches a club soccer team of 15- and 16-year-old girls. He has had half a dozen players sidelined by injuries ranging from a broken nose and dislocated elbow to a fractured hand and torn knee ligaments.

"With girls, we are seeing more and more injuries, and my personal opinion is that's because there are more girls participating than 10 years ago, and the level of competition has increased so much. Competitiveness has made the game a lot more physical than it was," Sais says.

For some parents, that physical play has been an eye-opener.

In April, Lara Press of Manhattan Beach was playing with her club team in a state cup game when she leaped to head the ball into the goal. As the opposing goalie rose to challenge her, she came down hard on Press' ankle, leaving her with two broken bones. Her mother still shudders about the incident.

"Now, I really look at the game differently than I did in the past," says Sarah Press, whose son suffered a serious knee injury last fall in a soccer game. "It makes me nervous. I've seen too many kids being helped off the field by paramedics."

While some cite the aggressive and physical nature of club soccer as a contributing factor to injuries, playing a less competitive brand of soccer is no safeguard from injury.

Faye Johnson says her daughter's AYSO team was playing two years ago at Hermosa Beach when an opposing player tripped the 14-year-old from behind. "She heard a pop before she hit the ground," Johnson recalls, "and her leg was so twisted, we knew immediately something was wrong."

Jennifer Johnson had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that would require surgery and nearly nine months of rehabilitation.

"I never thought serious injuries happened in soccer," her mother says. "And I never thought it happened to so many girls, but when Jennifer got injured I heard more and more about these injuries."

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