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Safer Sports

9 ways to protect young athletes from injuries

Sports injury

Sports injuries are sidelining more young athletes than ever before, a trend that concerns doctors, coaches, and parents.

According to the STOP Sports Injury Campaign, 2 million sports injuries strike high school students each year. Doctors are seeing serious injuries in children as young as 5; kids under 14 account for 40 percent of sports-related injuries treated in hospitals.

For some, injuries are a temporary setback. Basketball player McKenzie H., then 18, missed only two days of practice after a wayward elbow shattered her nose during a game. One month later, she played in her third straight state championship game, winning the title with her teammates. Her mom, Dianne, knows the injury could have been much worse. “We got really lucky,” she says.

Many others aren’t as fortunate. Sports injuries can stop budding athletes in their tracks and reduce their ability to enjoy healthy exercise later in life, says Lyle J. Micheli, M.D., director of sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of orthopedics at Harvard Medical School.

Doctors point to several reasons for recent increases in injury rates: greater recognition of some types of injury (like concussion); year-round training for athletes; and more intense training at younger ages. “Young kids—11, 12 years old—are swimming thousands of yards a day,” says Micheli. "A decade ago, we wouldn’t see that type of training intensity until college.”

Fear of injury shouldn’t stop kids from participating in sports, though. Organized sports boost fitness and teach important skills like cooperation, perseverance, and team building. Help ensure that your budding athlete stays on the field and out of the emergency room with the right safety measures.

Focus on fun

Enjoyment is the key to safe sportsmanship, says Micheli, so make sure kids truly want to participate. Those who play to please parents, friends, or coaches, instead of for pure enjoyment, may be less likely to take a break if they’re in pain or fatigued.

Watch for signs of burnout, including irritability, trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, and difficulties at school. These symptoms can indicate that a child is working too hard and needs a change of pace.

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Take a break

Young athletes who train year-round are more prone to injury, says Marci Goolsby, M.D., assistant sports medicine physician at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery. Adequate downtime between seasons allows tissues to rest and repair. She recommends a minimum of two weeks off; a full month is ideal.

Sign language

Early detection and treatment are important to recovery, says Micheli. Parents should be aware of the signs of injury and act quickly. Any pain that doesn’t disappear within a day or two should be evaluated by a doctor.

Signs of concussion are especially important to recognize, because they can be subtle and are sometimes masked by other symptoms. Brain injury can cause confusion, headaches, ringing in the ears, confusion, nausea, and lack of responsiveness. Concussions sometimes go unrecognized for weeks, says Dr. Micheli. If you suspect one, see a doctor immediately.

girls playing basketball

Sports safety for girls

Growing evidence points to the need for special safety precautions for female athletes, particularly those participating in high-intensity contact sports like basketball and soccer.

“There’s good evidence that girls have two to three times the risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries and a greater risk of knee injuries in general,” says Micheli.

Goolsby played high school and collegiate basketball without a traumatic knee or ACL injury, something she attributes to conditioning and strength training. She advises girls to lift weights for strength, balance, and injury protection. As with all athletes and all sports, proper technique, experienced coaching, and skilled supervision are critical to safety.

Nutrition is particularly important to pre-teen and teenage girls who play sports. A girl who has reached puberty but isn’t getting a period may have an energy imbalance; she needs to take in more calories to make up for energy spent during practice and games.

Added calories should be nutrient-dense. Chips and soda don’t cut it, says Goolsby. If girl athletes don’t get enough calcium, their risk of stress fractures increases, so aim for 800 milligrams of calcium per day for kids ages 4-8 and 1,300 milligrams per day for ages 9-18.

Screen for safety

Many sports programs are encouraging athletes to take part in pre-injury screening that helps identify brain injuries and rate their severity. The most widely used is the ImPACT test (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing), developed in the early 1990s by doctors Mark Lovell and Joseph Maroon.

When the test is taken before an injury, it provides a baseline for evaluating cognitive performance. After a concussion, the athlete’s recovery can be tracked so they don’t return to sports prematurely.

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Strong defense

Strength training and conditioning can help a child ward off injury. Micheli and Goolsby both recommend age-appropriate weight lifting under proper supervision. Stronger muscles provide greater stability and balance for jumping, landing, turning, throwing, and other strenuous moves.

Growing caution

According to Micheli, kids are especially vulnerable to injury during growth spurts. If your child is growing (sudden increases in appetite and sleep needs are signs of a growth spurt), take extra safety precautions.

Protect practice

Safety procedures for games and meets should be upheld at practice, too. Over 60 percent of sports-related injuries happen during practice, where safety standards are often more relaxed. Make practice safer by insisting on protective gear, rest, hydration, and other safety measures at practices.

Superior supervision

Sports medicine experts agree that parents should be aware of the level and quality of adult supervision for their children’s sports teams. Credentialing and experience for coaches varies widely, particularly in community sports programs. School-sanctioned sports programs benefit from access to athletic trainers and conditioning facilities, while community-based sports programs often don’t, he says.

Serious sports injuries are tragic, says Micheli, because sports can and should be fun for kids. Childhood sports set the stage for a lifetime of healthy, active living. With the right safety precautions, sports-loving kids can stay safe and keep running, pitching, throwing, jumping, and cheering for years to come.

Malia Jacobson is a health journalist and mom of three, and is married to a longtime high school varsity basketball coach.