Children are introduced at younger and younger ages to the world of sports and fitness. As early as 4 or 5 years old, kids are thrown onto the field to participate in team sports. Gymnasts are trained competitively at 6 years old, tennis players reach their peak by 21, and dancers are obsolete by the time they reach their mid-20s. Children are encouraged to specialize in sports at surprisingly young ages. 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. They should 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. However, since 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’s important that children learn proper sport techniques to avoid injury. Aside from the obvious fact that sports should be fun for children, here are a few key safety tips to heed in popular children’s sports.
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 rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Don’t give aspirin to children for pain. It’s associated with rare syndromes that are dangerous. If you would like to give a child something for pain, consider Tylenol. Always consult a pediatrician for direction on this.
Growth Plate & Bone Injuries
Injuries to the developing tissues located in the hands, feet, legs, and arms, can be more serious and are usually accompanied by an injury to the bone.
Heat-related injuries caused by dehydration and heat exhaustion are common but easily preventable.
Repetitive Motion Injuries
Repetitive motion injuries like fractures and tendinitis are caused by overuse. These problems may be difficult to detect since they don’t often show up on images or tests. Sports that involve throwing typically cause overexertion in the shoulder and elbow. Sports incorporating running and jumping tend to strain the leg from the knee to the ankle or the foot. Those that require gripping — such as gymnastics, golf, and tennis — lead to injuries that originate in the forearm and hand.
A major rule to follow, no matter what the sport or child’s level of fitness, is including 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.
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.
Using proper equipment and safety tools is vital to a child’s safety during sports activities. Important safety gear include:
- 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 are participating in, and don’t substitute. A bike helmet won’t do for a baseball batting helmet, and vice versa.
Another problem is inadequacy of coaches. Coaches should be taught:
- basic sports skills
- teaching techniques
- 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 don’t 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, risking shin 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. They are training more intensely and playing more year-round sports. These injuries are most common in competitive sports like:
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 they are also risking other accidents because they participate in a wide array of sports.
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 help stave off injury. Aerobic exercises, which develop the strength and endurance of the heart and lungs, are popular training methods in:
ACL injuries are a major concern amongst child athletes, especially young girls. Neuromuscular training is used to teach athletes to jump and land correctly, which decreases impact on the knees and building 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.
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.
Concussions are extremely common in contact sports. Make sure that you know the symptoms and consequences of concussion and that you contact a doctor with any questions you have. Find more information on concussions here.