No matter what time of year it is – spring, summer, autumn or winter – it’s always youth sports season. Outside or inside, on the field, court or rink, there always seems to be a league in session or a championship being pursued. And that means a perpetual cycle of practices and games, warm-ups and locker talks, water breaks and post-game celebrations.
The benefits of kids’ sports are numerous. Youth sports promote an active lifestyle, combat childhood obesity, and promote physical and emotional health, all while providing valuable lessons on ethics, teamwork and competition. However, the possibility of physical injury always lurks in the background.
Of course, the many positives of healthy physical activity far outshine the downside of a potential injury. But accidental injuries happen with kids, so it’s important to recognize the risks. By identifying common injuries – and ways to prevent them – we can better support young athletes and encourage healthy habits that last a lifetime.
The most common sports injuries in children
Sports injuries among youth athletes are far more common than you might think. According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, between 2011 and 2014, an estimated annual average of 5.6 million sport- and recreation-related injuries happened to children and young adults aged 5 to 24 in the U.S. That’s roughly 65% of the country’s entire sport injury tally!
So, what kinds of injuries do we see the most with boys and girls? Here’s a quick list of the common ones:
- Ankle injuries – including sprains and growth plate fractures
- Knee pain – which is frequently caused by runner’s knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome) or Osgood-Schlatter disease, an overuse injury of the growth plate just below the kneecap
- ACL tears – involving the anterior cruciate ligament, the stabilizing ligament of the knee
- Elbow pain – overuse can result in little league elbow (common name), an injury to the growth plate on the medial/inside of the elbow
- Concussions – brain injuries caused by impacts to the head, potentially resulting in serious complications
- Broken bones – fractures can range from overuse injuries (stress fractures) to acute breaks that may require casting or surgery
- Shin splints – a common overuse injury (technically called medial tibial stress syndrome) that involves inflammation of the outer edge of the shin bone
- Vertebral stress fractures – known as spondylolysis, a stress fracture of the backbone causing activity-related back pain
Fortunately, many of these injuries can be healed with the proper treatment, including rest and rehabilitation. But some can sideline your young athlete for weeks or months. That’s why it’s so important to do our best to prevent injuries before they can happen.
How do sports injuries happen?
The first step toward preventing injuries is understanding how they happen. There are plenty of reasons why injuries occur:
- Improper equipment or playing surfaces
- Poor instruction on proper movement and technique
- Lack of proper warming-up, cooling-down and stretching exercises
- Missed communication from coaches and teammates during play
- Overexertion/overuse and exhaustion
- Lack of good nutrition
- Just plain bad luck!
Of course, you can’t anticipate every injury. Some are simply unavoidable. But you can reduce the risk by taking the steps outlined below to keep your young athlete safe.
Which young athletes are most at-risk?
Injuries can happen anywhere there are bodies in motion. However, some youth sports involve a higher degree of impact than others, including:
No sport or activity is 100% safe. And beyond the field, injuries can also happen at the playground as well as on the skateboard and on the sled. But with the right equipment, coaching and technique, your kids can still have fun while playing safe.
How to help young athletes avoid injuries
So, beyond encasing your child in bubble wrap, what’s a parent to do? Plenty!
Here are some ways that you can support your young star-in-training.
Inspire safe habits
As your child learns about safe play, reinforce the good habits they’re discovering such as wearing proper safety equipment, following the rules and getting adequate rest for their growing bodies. Talk to them about why those habits are important. Encourage them to make healthy habits a part of their daily life. The more support your child receives from their loved ones, the more they’ll feel motivated to do the right thing for their own health and wellness.
Talk with your child’s coach(es)
By opening up a line of communication with your son or daughter’s coach, you can get a better idea of what your child is learning when it comes to technique and training methods. When you know what’s being encouraged in practice and on the field, you can help support healthy directions and be aware of common pitfalls that might be dangerous.
Warm up and cool down the correct way
For parents and coaches alike, modeling good habits begins with you! Whenever you participate in physical activities with your child, whether a race around the neighborhood or a game of catch at the park, lead your child through the warming up, cooling down and stretching necessary to avoid injury. Take a cue from our tips on warm-up exercises for baseball.
Watch for overtraining
When the competitive drive takes hold, your child might start going all-in on exercising and training. Keep tabs to make sure that your kid’s workouts stay safe and reasonable. Doctors recommend at least one rest day per week and three months off from a sport each year. Talk to your child about the benefits of balance and moderation, and try not to foster an overly competitive mindset that can lead to physical and mental health setbacks.
Support a diverse sports mix
Sports specialization is becoming more common. However, it can also lead to overuse of the same set of joints and ligaments. A mix of different sports throughout the year can provide a balance of activity and development for your child’s growing body, reducing the risk of overuse injuries from excessive wear-and-tear on the same joints and ligaments. Let your kids play the sport of the season.
Pay attention to mental health, too
Physical activity can have a tremendously positive effect on your child’s mental health, provided it’s done in a safe and balanced manner. But watch out for issues like burnout or signs of anxiety, particularly in teens and older kids. The stress of an intensely competitive environment can negatively impact your child both on and off the court (or field). Provide healthy support and encouragement as well as understanding and guidance when times are rough.
Youth sports are a phenomenal way for kids to develop their minds and bodies. And while there’s always a risk of injury, there are plenty of actions you and your kids can take to train and compete safely, ensuring years of fun activity to come.
Attend a sports physical
At a sports physical, a doctor will assess your child’s overall health, discuss any concerns and make sure your child is in tip-top shape for the upcoming sports season.
The frequency of required sports physicals depends on where you live. In Minnesota, a sports physical is required every three years. Wisconsin usually requires a sports physical every other year. Learn more about sports physicals.