Children are introduced at younger and younger ages to the world of sports and fitness. As early as four or five years old, with no physical preparation, kids are thrown onto the field to participate in team sports. Gymnasts are trained competitively at six years old, tennis players reach their peak by 21, and dancers are obsolete by the time they reach their mid-twenties. Children are encouraged to specialize in sports at surprisingly young ages. A recent article in the NY times cited weight training as beneficial for young children. But is it really safe for small children to be operating these machines? Should bodies that have not yet fully developed and whose bones are small and fragile really be pushing themselves with the same intensity as a fully grown adult?
Sure, children should be able to enjoy sports— run around a soccer field, hit a baseball, and do a cartwheel. Not only do sports help develop a child’s body, but they provide tools for learning discipline, partnership, and communication. But, because children are less coordinated and have slower reaction times than adults, most sports are high risk for kids who are not prepared. Injuries happen so it is important that children learn proper sport techniques to avoid injury. Aside from the obvious fact that sports should be fun for children—not high intensity, professional-level, expert-driven training regimens—here are a few key safety tips to heed in popular children’s sports.
Common Sports-Related Injuries in Children
Beyond the generic cuts and bruises, the most common sports-related injuries in children fall into four major categories.
Sprains & Strains
Minor trauma to the soft tissue, such as sprains or strains to a muscle or ligament, are usually mild and respond well to RICE- rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Do not give aspirin to children for pain; it is associated with rare syndromes that are dangerous. If you would like to give a child something for pain, consider Tylenol, but consult a pediatrician for direction on this.
Growth Plate & Bone Injuries
Heat-related injuries caused by dehydration and heat exhaustion are common but easily preventable.
Repetitive Motion Injuries
Lastly, repetitive motion injuries such as fractures and tendinitis caused by overuse These problems may be difficult to detect, as they do not often show up on images or tests.. Sports that involve throwing typically cause overexertion in the shoulder and elbow, those incorporating running and jumping tend to strain the leg from the knee to the ankle or the foot, while those that require gripping, such as gymnastics, golf, and tennis, lead to injuries that originate in the forearm and hand.
Always Warm-Up & Cool-Down
A major rule to follow, no matter what the sport or child’s level of fitness, is to include warm-ups and cool-downs as a regular part of a child’s routine. Stretching and light jogging minimize the chance of muscle strain or soft tissue injury. By warming up and cooling down the muscles, they become looser and more flexible, and thus better equipped to handle extra stress.
Protect from the Heat
Dehydration and heat sickness are common problems amongst children, especially those participating in outdoor sports. Players should recognize the dangers of playing in the heat and compensate by always wearing sunscreen, eating properly to fuel their bodies, and staying hydrated with water or enhanced sports beverages.
Use the Right Equipment
Using proper equipment and safety tools is vital to a child’s safety during sports activities. Helmets, padding, supportive shoes, safety harnesses, mouth guards, and goggles should always be worn. A common problem in child athletic programs is the insufficiency of protective equipment. Make sure that your child wears the right equipment for the sport he or she is participating in, and don’t substitute—a bike helmet won’t do for a baseball batting helmet, and vice versa.
Emphasize Proper Technique
Another problem is inadequacy of coaches. Coaches should be taught basic sports skills, teaching techniques, fitness, sportsmanship, and first aid. However, these coaches are often volunteers, and not properly educated in child coaching techniques. They drill young children the same way they would high school or college athletes, and do not teach proper technique. Thus, children will pitch baseballs with no regard to form, and risk straining the rotator cuff. Runners may not be taught the proper stance and risk shins splints or injuries in the knees and feet. Tennis players may spend hours lobbing balls only to strain an elbow.
Overuse injuries are becoming an increasing problem amongst children, who are training more intensely and playing more year-round sports. These injuries are most common in competitive sports, including baseball, basketball, running, gymnastics, and swimming. Doctors attribute the rise in sports-related overuse injuries to intensive sports training programs, longer playing seasons, and specialty sports camps. Not only do children risk overuse injuries, but because they participate in a wide array of sports, they are also risking numerous and varied other accidents.
Consider Cross-Training for Children
Although it may seem excessive, many doctors recommend cross-training programs for children— stretching, jumping and balancing drills, and small amounts of careful weight training to help stave off injury. Aerobic exercises, which develop the strength and endurance of the heart and lungs, are popular training methods in soccer, basketball, tennis, and football.
Consider Neuromuscular Training
ACL injuries—the ACL is the main stabilizing ligament in the knee joint—are a major concern amongst child athletes, especially young girls. According to a NY Times article, 50,000 tears occur in this joint each year, mainly among athletes age 15 to 25. Neuromuscular training is used to teach athletes to jump and land correctly, decreasing impact on the knees and building strength in the legs. This training is especially important for basketball, soccer, and football players, who often face injury by stopping suddenly, pivoting, and landing jumps.
Being aware of the risks involved in sports is the first step to preventing injury. With the proper knowledge, equipment, and training, these problems can be avoided before they become detrimental to the health and safety of a child.