Tommy John Surgery has become increasingly common among baseball pitchers, and even athletes in other sports.
Tommy John was a pitcher for the New York Yankees who suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, but was able to continue his career after a successful surgery.
Now his son, Dr. Tommy John III, who runs the Dr. Tommy John Performance and Healing Center, is out to try to put an end to that surgery, and stem the rising tide of youth sports injuries, with the book "Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent's Survival Guide"
In an interview with WDEL, Dr. John talked about the youth sports industry, overuse injuries, and the proper way to hydrate.
SEAN GREENE: Dr. John, we hear your name and it sounds very similar. Your father was a great pitcher who has a surgery named after him, is that how you became a Doctor yourself?
DR. TOMMY JOHN: I believe we're drawn to thing that find us. I always had a passion for how the body operates, and preparation for certain things. When I got into college at Furman, I was in health and exercise science, and fascinated by all things body. Learning that the body heals itself when its in a better environment than others, and clinically seeing injuries and people come back from things, and going into my own, in-house, one of the greatest sports medicine healing stories in the history of sports, this is pretty cool. I came to find out my dad was applying some of the things that I'd been applying for 10 years. He just went on feel, he became the most successful Tommy John Surgery in the history of Timmy John Surgery, so I believe it's fate or destiny, I believe I was on a stronger ship that was bigger than either of us."
You write a book that's called the Sport's Parents Survival Guide, and so often it's the Athletes Survival Guide, when did you go the Sport's Parents route?
We're seeing youth sports injuries epidemics in all sports: basketball, baseball, soccer, football, and others. No sport is safe, but the ultimate effecter [sic] in this whole thing are the parents, and what they're doing from womb to 13-years-old. The solution is now in their hands. I could only help who was coming through my doors, and I'm one person in one location, but the problem is vast. There are millions who are suffering, and I wanted to get a recipe, guideline, or a manual in their hands so they can take the reigns and put them and their family in a better position to try to do what we're all trying to do: adapt and thrive at life."
One of the topics you bring up is "keeping up with the joneses", the year-round specialization in sports, especially in basketball. You argue that maybe that's not the best way to go?
If you just look at the research on how to develop elite athletes, it's doing the exact opposite of what we're doing in America. The indoor facilities and youth sport business is a $17 billion empire and growing. I saw it all the time, you don't make billions of dollars being honest, necessary, and healthy. They're selling a lie to the parents who only want the best for their kids. That lie is the earlier you specialize and the more you compete, the better you will be. What we're seeing is they're trying to develop elite youth, and that's exactly what they're developing: Kids that are elite. But they can't sustain that process when the developing child is supposed to take time, years and years, and then it's sustainable to get to the highest level. If our goal is elite athletes at the college or professional rankings, we want to hold off and specialize as late as possible into your later teen years.
The idea that you play multiple sports, in your opinion, does it have a great effect on the overall athlete?
It does. It won't be one of those things that will solve everything, but there are different surfaces, and different rules, and different movements, and different stressors to the system that when the body undergoes it there's growth. If you're heading a soccer ball, or you're tackling or wrestling, or you need the agility and footwork of basketball, it all translates to the pitcher, to the golfer, and when you interview or see these top elite athletes, they sampled sports. They developed as much as possible. They were doing it because they loved it, but it's building a better athlete. That's what we want to try to be, this all-around athlete who happens to be an elite baseball player or basketball player. We have very, very poor athletes who are elite basketball players because we try to get the elite basketball player first and not the athlete first.
One of the big injury concerns in sports has been the header in soccer, they're been trying to get rid of it in youth soccer, but it seems in the English Premiere League or Major League Soccer that half the goals are scored by headers. Where is the balance, and what are you learning to try to prevent this injury from happening?
"We keep looking at the sports, and now it's one of the taglines: No sport is safe. Football's not safe, baseball's not safe, basketball's not safe, and now soccer's not safe, especially for the females. We have folks terrified about sports, we have to look at the participants in the sport that aren't surviving the sport. It's not the header, per se, it's the inability of the person doing the header who can't sustain it. If you look at the participants, what are we seeing? The first 10-11 years were spend behind screens, they weren't outside, developing all of their senses in free play. Everything was organized, everything was specialized, organized sports and scheduled out. They're malnourished, and because they're malnourished they're under-hydrated. They're not getting any sleep, and they're staring at phones. Females come in with the worst case of forward head carriage, meaning their heads are pitched forward from years and years of staring at a screen or a phone. Now you take that soccer player and put them in a position on a field where they have to use that head sitting on a neck that's sitting on a body that's not nourished, it's under-slept, it has no immune system, it's can't function. It's the appendage that's used the most. Now we're seeing the brains from headers, arms from baseball, knees from basketball and soccer, whatever gets used the most is going to break down. Sadly, get ready, we're going to keep seeing studies bring up more and more sports, and these kids are going to continue to suffer because we're trying to change from the top down, and it can't work that way.
You mentioned under-hydration, one term I hadn't seen until I read your book was over-hydration can be just as much of a problem.
My podcast this week was about the best way to hydrate, and I made a joke, here's a hint, it's not water. The 6-8 glasses of water a day from 1945 there was the paper release we were supposed to get 6-8 glasses, but the majority was supposed to come from food. So we're supposed to hydrate from the food we eat, not the water we drink. Now the water is pitched as a saving grace. We have people drinking so much water, you can actually dilute stomach acids, dilute minerals and nutrients in blood, that it can be dangerous. Now it takes a lot of water to get there, so I don't want people to be as afraid of water as they are of soccer, but it's one of those things where if there is a hydration concern, change your water into a homemade Gatorade that we offer in the book, or add a little salt and fruit juice to the water, or just eat a plum and a couple celery sticks and you're more hydrated than a bottle of water would ever allow.
I just spoke to a Delaware athlete, Emily Dolan, who is playing soccer professionally in Europe and she just suffered a knee injury. It happens so often in girls sports, what is that contributed to?
Again, we look at the participants. An injury that happens to an area, it's not a problem with the area, you have to look above and below. Let's go above and below the knee. Let's look at the feet, ankle, and calves of the females, let's look at the hips of the females. Now more than ever, they're more unstable, they're weaker, they can't recover, they're malnourished, they're underslept, and they're looking at tech. It's coming down to the same things. It just happens to be the joint in-between that is the one that gets affected because they use their legs more. To solve the problem, we want to go to these screenings, and screen the hip strength and screen the knees, you have to screen everything. When was the last time you asked your athlete how much sleep they got the night before putting them into a practice. When's the last time you asked them what they ate that day, or how much they were stuck to their phones. How over-scheduled are they? How at peace are they with their relationships and their emotional connection to food and purpose in life. There are things that are more profound than just the 'How are you running, how is the stability of the knee?' that we have to get back to if we're willing to see any type of change in these epidemics. They have to be systemic and look into the whole athlete.
When someone reads your book, what do you their big takeaway to be when they're done?
I want people to be empowered. Today more than ever we're terrified. All the research out there, all the commercials out there, what more can we be afraid of. I don't want us to be afraid of sport. I want us to look at this as a manual or guideline and take it in, and put our whole family to survive and thrive at life, because that's what the design of our body is. It just wants to adapt to its environment. So let's go ahead and do the things necessary to put us in the best position, whether we choose to play sports, play golf on the weekend, survive a fall, or get up and down off a toilet. It's no different, we're all human athletes until the day we die, and we all develop and thrive the way, and we have to get those basic elements back in play with the families.