Now, he has advice for parents of young athletes.
By JAMES DOWD
Growing up in Memphis, Owen Tabor, Jr., MD, loved sports and enjoyed his gridiron experiences playing for Memphis University School in the 1980s. Back then, the future OrthoSouth orthopedic surgeon counted among his friends many who played multiple team sports.
From football to basketball to baseball, with other sports occasionally tossed into the mix, Tabor said most athletes during his high school years juggled academics and field or court time with little to no adverse effects.
Times have changed.
As travel team sports increase in popularity and young athletes adopt more intense training schedules, sports-related injuries are also on the rise.
Tabor said growing numbers of young patients come to OrthoSouth due to conditions connected to the boom in year-round youth sports.
“When I was in school, you had all kinds of recreational leagues and church leagues where kids played and had fun, but it was on a much more limited basis,” Tabor said. “Students might play two or three sports, but they usually didn’t overlap, and they trained for them differently and got some rest between seasons. Everything’s different now.”
One challenge facing today’s young athletes is hyper specialization that can lead to burnout and injuries, Tabor said. Unlike multiple-sports athletes who might have played football, basketball and baseball during Tabor’s high school years, many of today’s young athletes may focus on a single sport and train for it most of the year.
This focus can cause some athletes to become weary of team or individual sports they used to love. Intense and repetitive training can lead to injuries when young athletes feel pressured to continue playing without being fully recovered.
“Today we’re seeing a lot more repetitive stress injuries in ages 12-14 in both males and females,” Tabor said. “There are more sports opportunities these days and kids are specializing and playing sports year-round, which can decrease the fun aspect and increase the injury aspect.”
A study by the National Library of Medicine confirms Tabor’s view. The findings show that athletes from 12 to 18 years of age who engage in hyper specialization within a single sport also demonstrate increased levels of injuries.
According to a report from Ohio-based Nationwide Children’s Hospital, more than three million young athletes visit emergency rooms each year because of sports injuries, and five million young patients seek treatment from their family doctors for such injuries.
As an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hip and knee replacements at OrthoSouth, Tabor has seen his share of sports injuries. And while he’s quick to point out that he loves his career, it wasn’t what he imagined he’d be doing when he was a University of Virginia undergraduate majoring in English.
“My father was an orthopedic surgeon, but I had no interest in doing ortho or surgery. When I left home for college, I wanted to do my own thing and medicine, at least initially, wasn’t part of the equation.”
Tabor said his parents never pressured him to follow a medical path, instead encouraging him to pursue his own interests. While considering various options, Tabor said he started thinking about what life could – and would look like after college. And he liked what he saw at home.
“I was an English major and I thought about what I wanted to do, and it was simple as I looked at my father and he genuinely liked his job” Tabor said. “He went to work looking forward to the day ahead and he came home happy every night and I liked that.”
A stint as a hospital orderly helped Tabor decide that a career in medicine just might be in the cards. He added pre-med courses to his English major and after graduation he entered the University of Virginia School of Medicine. An internship in orthopedics sealed the deal.
“It wasn’t my original plan, but I ended up following in my dad’s footsteps and I’ve been happy with that decision ever since,” Tabor said. “I had a nice career going, but when an opportunity presented itself for me to come back to Memphis and work with my dad, I decided to take it. That was 24 years ago, and I love being at OrthoSouth. It’s been fantastic.”
When he returned to Memphis, Tabor spent years as the Friday Night Lights sideline doctor for MUS football games. He did that for nearly 20 years before transitioning away from it but enjoyed the experience.
Over the years, he’s seen some things remain relatively constant, while others have changed.
“Football injuries were major ones then and they’re major ones now because it’s a high contact sport and typically results in a lot more injuries than in other sports,” Tabor said. “One thing that has changed is that when I was in high school the kids didn’t get hurt as much and maybe that’s because we played on grass, which is softer than the turf they play on now. Another thing is that the athletes weren’t as big back then. When I played, you might see a handful of players top 200 pounds. Now you see some of them pushing 300 pounds and when you have those forces of collision then injuries definitely increase.”
Another change in youth sports Tabor has noticed is the explosion of opportunities for female athletes. And while the growth of women’s sports is a good thing, there are also challenges connected with such popularity.
“Today there are more sports and more opportunities for women and that’s great, but there are also a lot more injuries as well,” Tabor said. “I see it not only with basketball and soccer and softball and volleyball players, but also with many competitive gymnasts and cheerleaders and dancers. Young women at 11 or 12 are engaged in three-day-a-week practices, 52 weeks a year and they never get a break.”
Lest folks get the impression that he’s against youth sports, Tabor is quick to dispel that notion. Instead, he advocates for the time-honored tradition of moderation.
“I’ve seen too many kids at 12 who were gonna be the next big thing, but by 15 they ‘re not playing sports at all, so I encourage parents to have their kids play multiple sports and have fun with it and enjoy themselves,” Tabor said. “Look, if they’re really good, then they’re gonna shine regardless and taking a couple months off this sport or another sport won’t hurt them. In the end it’ll make them better.”