The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and Sanford Health are launching the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute this week.

Congressman Mike McIntyre (North Carolina), chairman of the Congressional Youth Sports Caucus, and Senator John Thun (South Dakota), Gary Hall, Jr. (Olympic swimmer with Type 1 diabetes and gold medalist) will be attendance. Even though there have been tremendous strides to increase youth participation in sports in the U.S., there has been an alarming rate of injuries, despite gains in research to prevent such problems.

Not just kids’ play
McIntyre, a parent and former coach, found “the deficiencies in child-centered philosophy, coaching, health and safety, officiating, and parental behavior/involvement around youth sports” troubling. Ask anyone in the sports medicine field, and they would agree.

Increase in injuries
This is the brainchild of Michael Bergeron, Ph. D., FACSM, who will be the executive director of the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute. According to Bergeron, “there has been a disturbing trend in the youth sports industry… we are seeing an increase in injuries that have never been seen before in children and teens: over-use/stress-induced and concussions. Over the last two months, 14 kids have already died – half from heat-related causes, the other half from cardiac issues; it used to be that 2-3 kids died each year. Something needs to change.”

Misguided stakeholders
The goals of this program will include collecting research, developing new education strategies and policy and educating parents, coaches, trainers and physicians. Clearly, it is easy to see how there has been a conflict of interest: kids want to play sports for fun, parents have a number of reasons – many hopeful that it will lead to a college scholarship, and there are stake holders who profit from the increased utilization of their services (coaching, training, tournaments, etc.). For many school districts and universities – athletics has been the cash cow for academia – which does not necessarily improve education or serve the majority of students.

Bergeron shared an interesting statistic: “Only five percent of student athletes play sports in college, which means 95 percent of youths, who play sports in high school, stop playing sports.”

There is more and more pressure for children to specialize in one sport… gone are the days of sports having one season – they last the entire year. Most professional athletes played a variety of sports when they were younger, but in the current climate, travel sports put incredible time and financial demands on families, leaving little opportunity for rest and recovery – oh yeah, and just being a kid.

Good intentions
Many coaches are volunteers, which mean kids, who are a vulnerable population, are being coached by the least qualified. The Institute has children’s safety and development as a priority.

There are four “pillars” that will come under the Institute:
• Unique Clinical Conditions in Youth Athletic Populations (e.g., Type 1 diabetes, eating disorders, sudden cardiac trauma)

• Concussion/mild traumatic brain injury

• Heat illness and injury

• Overuse/overload and injury risk

Let’s get physical
There is a pre-participation monograph by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Sports Medicine, which is the gold-standard for youth health screening, but it requires expertise to interpret. For parents whose child did not have a cardiac abnormality picked up during their physicals, this has been a concern. When injuries occur, are those who are diagnosing and managing the child athlete up to date with current protocols? Concussions are a prime example of injuries that have been poorly treated which have lead to life-threatening harm.

Exercise is medicine
Let us not forget, that sports are supposed to be a fun way to improve our cardio respiratory fitness, develop muscle and bone strength along with building character. Dr. Tom Best, FACSM, past president of the ACSM and Director of Sports Medicine at The Ohio State University, sees this as an opportunity, “no one advocates for kids… we want them to play, and have fun – safely.”

Best adds, “youth sports should encourage lifelong habits.” Instead we see burnout. Not just in children and teens, but perhaps this is a barrier to physical activity in adults.

For some, injuries make continuation of sports less desirable, for others, it can be life-changing and disabling. One example, Eric LeGrand, the 20 year old Rutgers University football player who became paralyzed after being tackled during a game last fall; life will never be the same.

Practice what you preach
I have always been an advocate of youth sports and will continue to do so. I’m the “bad” mom who won’t let her children play travel sports – but stand firm in putting theory into practice.

Keeping kids physically active and diversified in sports is better for training, coordination and improving their chances for lifelong physical activity behaviors. As parents, health care professionals, and coaches must remember - safety and fun - go hand-in-hand.

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's groundbreaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website FeliciaStoler.com