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INSIDE THE MACHINE

Youth Sports Grind Is Tough on Body, Spirit

INSIDE THE MACHINE Youth sports in overdrive * Second in a three-part series

February 28, 2000|SCOTT GOLD and TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At age 10, David Castleton joined a basketball team that traveled the country. By 12, he could name the amino acids needed to perfect his physique. By 14, he was seeing separate trainers for conditioning, basketball shooting, football passing, speed and mental toughness.

He repeated eighth grade, not because he failed his classes, he says, but to give him an extra year of drills and discipline, allowing him to dominate as a freshman quarterback at powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana.

A childhood forged in athletics left Castleton, now 21, an elite athlete and earned him a scholarship to Brigham Young University, a storied football program that has ushered a series of quarterbacks into the NFL.

It also left him physically battered--by his senior year at Mater Dei, he had dislocated his shoulder five times and undergone two surgeries--and emotionally spent, without a taste for a "normal" adolescence. His back wrenched, his spirit trampled, Castleton quit before playing a game at BYU.

He's now playing for Orange Coast College, again pursuing a scholarship although his father could afford to send him to any school in the country.

"I was a big shot in high school," says Castleton, who routinely jetted from summer tournaments in Arizona to scrimmages in Southern California while at Mater Dei. "I thought I would go to college and be the man. I was completely wrong. Things got totally turned upside down."

From the plush soccer fields of San Diego to the polished basketball courts of Santa Barbara, the quest for profit and the demands of ambition have ratcheted youth athletics to new heights. Many fear this must-win mania is spiraling out of control, damaging the games and, in some cases, the kids who play them.

Soccer fields are sprinkled with kids who have shiny surgery scars burrowed along their knees. Parents ask surgeons to make their daughters' pelvises more flexible, a crucial advantage for elite gymnasts. Pitchers destroy their arms by seventh grade, while their parents shun doctors' recommendations for surgery because it could tarnish their son's athletic resume.

And 80-pound fourth-grade football players diet before "weigh day" so they can make lower divisions, ensuring themselves stardom among younger kids.

"You see ones that are skinny as a rail," says Warren Ferguson, a Pop Warner Football commissioner in Los Angeles and Orange counties. "It's hard to watch."

A Times analysis compiled through interviews with hundreds of coaches, parents, league officials and players concluded that Southern Californians spend more than $1 billion per year on elite youth athletics.

There is no question that the money has driven many kids' skill levels to unprecedented heights, bringing not only self-esteem and fitness but also the occasional tournament trophy and college scholarship.

However, the soaring talent level among Southern California's child-athletes is a bitter pill--even among people like Don Ebert, who makes a very good living off the industry.

"Is it working? Yes. At what cost to the player and the family? That's the gray area," says Ebert, a former U.S. national soccer team captain and current director of coaching for the Irvine Strikers, one of Southern California's premier club teams. "Everyone should be concerned about the breaking point. It's gone haywire."

An Epidemic of Injuries

It's tough to measure the impact of the new age in youth athletics in broken hearts.

Measuring the impact in broken bones is easier.

According to a poll conducted for The Times, 41% of Orange County parents whose children are involved in organized athletics say at least one of their kids has been injured during competition or training.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation estimated that as of 1997, injuries to child athletes nationwide cost $3.78 billion annually--a 650% increase in 17 years, with much of the medical care subsidized by the public.

Meanwhile, the number of kids who are being treated for overuse injuries--slow-building stress fractures, for example, or chronic muscle tears that come from throwing too many passes or pitches--is skyrocketing, says Rita Glassman, spokeswoman for the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation in Boston.

The rate of those injuries, because they do not require immediate attention, has not been measured yet by activists or the government. But Glassman says the injuries are of "epidemic proportion."

Anaheim Angels medical director Lewis Yocum, who has worked with hundreds of elite athletes, has performed "Tommy John" surgery--reconstructing an elbow ligament using a wrist tendon--on baseball players as young as 16. "The standard line of every parent that comes into our office is: 'You don't understand how talented my kid is,' " he says.

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