Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide
By Dr. Tommy John with Myatt Murphy
Da Capo Press
If you are a baseball fan, you have heard of Tommy John surgery. If you have not heard of it, don’t kid yourself—you are not a fan. Why do I say that? Because, in Major League Baseball (MLB), it is pervasive. Twenty-five percent of all MLB players have had the surgery, which replaces a torn elbow ligament with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The surgery has exploded in the last few decades. That is bad news, but the really bad news is this: Tommy John surgery is being performed more often on young athletes (less than twenty years old) than on professional athletes. Young people under age twenty should never need surgery like that.
If you are a sports fan in general, you will have noticed an increase in injuries in all sports. What is going on? Dr. John (son of the famous MLB pitcher for whom Tommy John surgery was named) covers all the bases in this book and quickly hones in on some of the primary root causes, including love of money. You will almost always find the love of money at the root of major problems. Childhood sports organizations rake in billions of dollars per year and strongly encourage kids to become active in sports at an early age. They push the kids to participate as often as possible and year-round if possible. So, what’s wrong with that?
All sports overwork certain muscle groups and the overdoing is what causes damage. Human bodies are designed to move in certain ways and do a variety of things. We are not designed to do the same thing over and over with machine-like repetition for hours at a time. Children, especially, should be playing—just playing—not engaging in intense sports competition. There are several reasons for this.
Children’s bodies are still developing, and they are still learning the basics of how to move. Most can’t stand with their eyes closed without losing their balance. Most can’t balance on one leg. Children are also still developing mentally and psychologically. When their whole life is soccer or baseball or any one sport, that is all they think about and all they know how to talk about. Well-rounded personalities and social skills require well-rounded experience. Children can play sports for fun but should play a variety of sports, not just one and not just sports.
Research is also showing how damaging electronic devices can be. Video games that require fast reactions (or you’re “dead”) create stress. Sports competitions that require good performance or you disappoint your parents and coaches create stress. They overtax the parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts down your immune system. Intense sports competition requires your immune system to be at its best to recover from any muscle or tendon damage.
The idea that a child must start serious athletic training by the age of five so as not to be hopelessly behind for life is wrong and destructive. I’ve heard more than one older male comedian joke about realizing—after years of struggling to better their athletic performance—that Little League was the zenith of their career. Why? In many cases, because too much Little League wrecked them.
Often, the popular wisdom is not only wrong but doing a lot of damage. In the U.S., we have some very wrong ideas about how to build a strong body. One thing we do is overfocus on throwing speed, for example, but ignore control and proper form. Another big mistake is concentrating on building muscles. We have athletes with huge “guns” that look very impressive, but they haven’t given the same attention to tendons, ligaments and bones. Big muscles require strong support and when they don’t have it, the athlete will tear himself apart sooner or later. I have known a number of muscular bodybuilders who comment that they are almost constantly in pain. They think that is just the way it has to be.
Many pages in this book emphasize the importance of nutrition. If you don’t get that right, forget about any athletic career that is more physically challenging than chess. Good advice includes avoiding anything that has a longer shelf life than you do. Good fats are essential and grass-fed butter is one of his first recommendations, along with coconut oil, bacon, lard, real meat (not meat-like substances) and bone broth. Fruit and vegetable drinks do not make the “good” list, nor do sports drinks. In fact, sports drinks erode teeth more than soda. After studying the research, he goes against the crowd on the subject of water. Too much water dehydrates. At best, only a small percentage of pure water gets to where it needs to go, and the rest goes right through you. Hydration from food—including whole fruits and veggies, not just the juice—is more effective. Kombucha is on his recommended list.
While most of Dr. John’s nutritional advice is very good, not every detail hits a home run when compared with a Wise Traditions diet. His views on milk differ from what you will find on the WAPF website or realmilk.com. He does recognize that raw cow milk is preferable to pasteurized milk. He recommends cod liver oil, but I would look on the WAPF cod liver oil web page for more details on which one to take.
I get a kick out of punching holes in popular paradigms, so I will mention a few more details. “Everyone knows you should put ice on every booboo and injury.” Wrong. Ice does not help and slows down the healing process in many cases. “Everyone knows you should stretch before you work out or compete.” Wrong. “Long-distance running is a good way to warm up.” Wrong. “Long-distance running is a good thing to do after a workout to reduce soreness.” Wrong. “Long-distance running is good conditioning for sports in general.” Wrong, unless your sport is track or some aerobic sport. Most sports, baseball in particular, are anaerobic. “Endurance training is good for you.” Wrong. It increases cortisol (which can degrade muscle), reduces bone density and lowers testosterone. If you are pronating or making other incorrect muscle movements, you are tearing down those joints. If you are going to do a lot of running, you really need to know what you are doing. If you don’t know, get this book.
People have some funny ideas about how much to exercise. I remember one coworker talking about a “run till you barf” contest. Why would you do that? Does it impress the ladies? I have occasionally brought that up in casual conversation which, OK, tells you something about my conversational skills. Be that as it may, I have not encountered any women who were impressed by that. Endless, obsessive exercise is not the path to good health or any other benefit.
If you are a parent of an aspiring athlete, or physically active yourself or thinking of bending at the waist, I have not seen a better book than this to keep you out of the emergency room. The thumb is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2019