Dr. Tommy John III – the son of that Tommy John – celebrated a milestone with one of his patients recently. She’s a 22-year-old former college swimmer, one of the best. You know the type:
In the pool at 6 months, on the team at age 5, breaking national age-group records at 12. Practice at 6 a.m. six days a week. Her parents, well-meaning co-collaborators, drive the bus, literally and otherwise, paying for the training and the travel, doing what they think is best, maybe hoping for a full college ride or an Olympic medal. Living vicariously and selflessly at the same time.
Except the swimmer gets so caught up in swimming, her body rebels. Dr. John recites her numbers:
“Three shoulder surgeries, 42 dislocations. Slip out, slip back, slip out, stay out. Stress fractures in her spine. This was the American model of how to raise a swimmer.’’
It’d be sad if it ended there. It didn’t.
Dr. John: “Nineteen medications to treat the injuries, including psychiatric medications. Her inability to perform was creating depression and anxiety.’’
The woman and her husband moved to San Diego, where John operates the Performance and Healing Center. She saw him three days a week. “She just celebrated six months being clean,’’ Dr. John said Monday.
Those of us of a certain age still find this shocking. That’s because we’re old enough not only to remember Frank Robinson, but also to have seen him play. To us, sports was fun and spontaneous. A pick-up pick-me-up. Compared to the last couple decades, it was nearly Rockwell-ian.
The doctor’s father, a four-time all-star pitcher, was the first to recover fully from the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery that bears his name. In the foreword to his son’s new book, the father writes, “I never would have guessed my name would be attached to an operation now more common with kids than pro athletes, thanks to what youth sports have become.’’
Indeed, 57 percent of Tommy John surgeries now involve athletes between 15 and 19 years old.
The doctor’s book is titled Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide. The doctor tries to explain our sports-weird culture, as it pertains to youth sports. And, he hopes, to offer solutions. It’s not necessary to have 12-year-old pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery, or 9-year-old basketball players with torn ACLs, or 22-year-old ex-swimmers taking “psychiatric medicines’’ to treat anxiety and depression created by what should have been fun.
“It’s a public health concern,’’ Dr. John said.
Tommy John III doesn’t do Tommy John surgery. He tries to prevent it from being necessary. He runs what his bio describes as “a private practice that provides both athletes and entire families with integrative, individualized care plans and treatment to improve their quality of life by reducing physical and emotional pain from injury and aging.’’
What he does, essentially, is heal bodies, hearts, and minds. He doesn’t want 15-year-old baseball pitchers bragging about their shoulder surgery or parents wondering how quickly their child can start throwing again.
Dr. John played pro baseball briefly in the minor leagues, before opening what he called a “baseball performance company.’’ After a while, “The young athletes I was teaching were suffering from the same ligament and tendon damage as the older adults I was treating. I found myself offering rehab advice instead of instruction about the game.’’
This isn’t new. Reds medical director Dr. Tim Kremchek, an orthopedic surgeon, is an authority on healing the wounded child-athlete. He has cut on lots of kid pitchers who think Tommy John surgery is a rite of passage. And whose parents want that college scholarship, or more.
What’s new is Dr. John’s attempt to reverse the clock, and the thinking. He’d like us to get back to the notion of sports being fun, even for the top-level kids.“I don’t see joy,’’ he said. “It’s a job to them.’’
He suggests kids not focus on one sport, or if they do, take a four-month break from it every year. He laments our current Age of Devices, in which kids lives are ruled by mobile phones and video games and movies on DVR. “Little zombies,’’ he calls the children, and suggests too much obsessing on phones and gaming can cause everything from poor posture and spinal issues (from constantly looking down at a phone screen) to an overstimulated and underachieving brain.
Dr. John offers nutrition suggestions (don’t eat foods that don’t go bad), too. Mostly, he sees a need for parents to dial everything back. Hyper-achieving can eventually do more harm than good.
Ironically, if his message sinks in, his business will suffer. “I’d love to be out of work,’’ he laughed. Some of the rest of us would second that. Sports shouldn’t be a job, unless it comes with a paycheck.