EULESS — For many (especially his opponents), 11-year old Spencer Shelley is considered an ace pitcher on his select baseball team, the DFW Express.
"I like striking people out," said Spencer, who can hurl the ball more than 60 mph. "I throw pretty fast."
Spencer would play all day, every day, but he was ordered to take a break from the game he loves last season because of what seemed to be a minor pain on the inside of his elbow.
"Whenever I threw, it was sore," he said.
"We initially thought, as a pitcher, your arm is going to be sore," explained Rob Shelley, Spencer's father, "So we attributed it to fatigue. And if he wasn't throwing, his arm wasn't hurting. So it was business as usual."
It wasn't until Spencer started making noticeable adjustments to the way he threw last season that his parents took him to the doctor.
"The growth plate sees stress, micro-trauma, gets injured and inflamed," explained orthopedic Dr. Kevin Honig of All-Star Orthopaedics in Southlake. "And then kids end up with pain and problems performing."
Dr. Honig said he and other orthopedic specialists are seeing a rise in over-use injuries specific to adolescent athletes. It's fueled by children specializing in one sport at a younger age, compounded by rigorous training regimens and year-round tournaments.
Ailments include swimmer's shoulder; gymnast's wrist; runner's knee; and Little League elbow, to name just a few.
For athletes who haven't reached puberty, the consequences of fragile growth plates can be serious.
"Usually the treatment ends up being rest and ice, and then rehab and proper mechanics and training," Dr. Honig said. "But some can be severe. If you have a significant fracture through the growth plate, sometimes that will lead to surgery, growth disturbance and problems down the road."
In fact, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends against playing one sport year-round, and urges regular breaks and playing other sports as essential to skill development and injury prevention.
The Academy does not give specific recommendations on breaks.
Doctors say players need to report any pain to the coach and their parents.
"He had some limits for sure, and we had to give him some time off," said Rob Shelley. "If your kids are telling you their arm is sore... if the pain doesn't go away by the end of the day... I recommend you go to the doctor."
Because year-round sports are not going away, it's also the coach or trainer's responsibility to be aware of symptoms that players (and parents) may think are no big deal.
Sometimes those adults have to make a tough call and bench players — even if the athlete and parent doesn't like it.
"You're talking about the difference between a child's career continuing on through middle school or high school, compared to winning one game," said DFW Express baseball coach Jeff Hobbs.
Spencer Shelley wasn't allowed to pitch or throw in the biggest tournament his team played in last season. His doctor ordered several weeks of complete rest from sports during the summer.
Then, Spencer went through several more weeks of rehab before being allowed to pick up a baseball.
Right now, he's limited as to how much he can practice and play, so that this season he'll be able to stay in the game he loves.