Children may get involved in the world of sports and fitness at a young age. They can enter the field and participate in team sports as early as 4 or 5 years old. Gymnasts train competitively at 6 years old, tennis players reach their peak by 21 years old, and dancers tend to experience the most success by the time they reach their mid-20s. Children can begin specializing in sports at surprisingly young ages, but is doing so really safe for small children? Should bodies that haven’t yet fully developed be pushed to the same physical limits as full-grown adults?
Sure, children should be able to enjoy sports. They should run around a soccer field, hit a baseball, and do a cartwheel. Sports help develop a child’s body. They also provide tools for learning discipline, partnership, and communication. However, children are less coordinated and have slower reaction times than adults. This makes most sports high-risk for kids. Injuries happen, so it’s important that children learn proper techniques to stay safe. Here are a few key safety tips to follow in popular children’s sports.
Beyond the generic cuts and bruises, the most common sports-related injuries in children fall into five major categories.
Sprains and strains
Sprains involve minor trauma to ligaments, whereas strains occur in muscles and tendons. These injuries are usually mild and respond well to rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Don’t give aspirin to children for pain. Aspirin has been linked to some rare and dangerous syndromes. Instead, consider giving a child Tylenol for pain. Always consult a pediatrician before giving any medication.
Growth plate and bone injuries
Injuries to the developing tissues of the hands, feet, legs, and arms can be serious. They usually occur with a bone injury. The ends of children’s larger bones have cartilage structures called growth plates. Growth plates determine what shape and size the mature bones will take. These areas can become separated and displaced through overuse or injury. Treatment requires surgery. Before these areas become separated, they usually become inflamed and painful. When this occurs at the knee it’s called Osgood-Schlatter disease, or tibial apophysitis. When it occurs at the heel it’s called Sever’s disease, or calcaneal apophysitis.
Heat-related injuries due to dehydration and heat exhaustion are common but easily preventable.
Repetitive motion injuries
Overuse can lead to repetitive motion injuries like fractures and tendinitis. These injuries may be hard to detect because they don’t often appear in images or tests. Sports that involve throwing typically cause overexertion in the shoulder and elbow. Sports that have running and jumping tend to strain the leg between the knee and the foot. Sports that use gripping, such as gymnastics, golf, and tennis, can lead to injuries in the forearm and hand.
Along with musculoskeletal injuries, concussions are extremely common in contact sports. Learn the symptoms and consequences of concussions so you can help identify a possible concussion in your child. Contact a doctor with any questions you have. Find more information on concussions here.
Always warm up and cool down
A major rule to follow is to include warmups and cooldowns as part of a child’s fitness routine. A child will benefit from this, regardless of their sport or level of fitness. Stretching and light jogging reduce the chance of muscle strain or soft tissue injury. Warming up and cooling down helps muscles become looser and more flexible, and thus better able to handle stress.
Protect yourself from the heat
Dehydration and heat sickness are common problems in children, especially those playing outdoor sports. Educate children on the dangers of playing in the heat. Teach them to always wear sunscreen, eat properly to fuel their bodies, and stay hydrated with water or enhanced sports beverages.
Use the right equipment
Proper equipment and safety tools are vital to a child’s safety during sports. Important safety gear includes:
- supportive shoes
- safety harnesses
- mouth guards
A common problem in child athletic programs is a lack of protective equipment. Make sure that your child wears the right equipment for the sport they’re playing. Don’t substitute equipment from another sport. For example, a bike helmet won’t protect your child as well as a batting helmet during baseball practice.
Emphasize proper technique
Coaches need to learn proper techniques so they can pass them on to children. Coaches should know:
- basic sports skills
- teaching techniques
- fitness principles
- first aid
Coaches are often volunteers and don’t have proper child coaching techniques. Some coaches may think it’s appropriate to drill young children as they would high school or college athletes, and don’t teach proper technique. This can lead to children practicing unsafe techniques. For example, a child may learn to throw a baseball without knowing proper form. This can lead to a strained rotator cuff. Runners might not learn proper stance, risking shin splints or knee and foot injuries. Tennis players may spend hours lobbing balls only to strain an elbow.
Overuse injuries are becoming an increasing problem in children, who are training more intensely and playing more year-round sports. These injuries are most common in competitive sports, including:
Sports-related overuse injuries may result from intensive sports training programs, longer playing seasons, and specialty sports camps.
Consider cross training for children
Many doctors recommend cross-training programs for children. Stretching, jumping and balancing drills, and small amounts of careful weight training help prevent injury. Aerobic exercises, which develop heart and lung strength and endurance, are popular training methods in soccer, basketball, tennis, and football.
Consider neuromuscular training
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a ligament in the knee. ACL injuries are a major concern for child athletes, especially young girls. Neuromuscular training teaches athletes to jump and land correctly, which reduces impact on the knees and builds strength in the legs. This training is especially important for basketball, soccer, and football players. These athletes often face injury by stopping suddenly, pivoting, and landing jumps.
Awareness of the risks involved in sports is the first step to preventing injury. With the proper knowledge, equipment, and training, a child can avoid injury and increase their enjoyment.