Make Safety of Young Athletes a Priority
< Apr. 08, 2009 > -- Children face a number of potential hazards as they suit up for youth sports, but many can be avoided with help from attentive parents. April is National Youth Sports Safety Month, and experts want parents to be aware of the ways they can help protect children from harm.
Children involved in sports are exposed to the many positive benefits. Namely, making new friends, learning the importance of fair play, being a good sport, and learning about camaraderie.
However, children can be more susceptible to sports injuries and their activities should be approached in a smart and sensible way to prevent them.
More than 30 million children participate in sports in the United States every year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of that total, more than 3.5 million of them age 14 and under are treated for sports-related injuries each year.
High school athletes account for an additional 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The biggest danger comes from kids being pushed or pushing themselves too hard, experts say. Almost half of all sports injuries to middle school and high school students result from overuse, according to the National Center for Sports Safety. Kids play the same sport, running the same drills, day after day until something tears.
However, experts say that kids who enjoy being active should play many different types of sports to keep themselves from burning out or suffering an overuse injury.
"Usually we recommend that they do more multiple sports and not do more than 15 hours of any particular sport in one week," says Carl Gustafson, a physical therapist on staff at Sports & Physical Therapy Associates in Wellesley, Mass. "There have been two studies done, on figure skaters and dancers, and 15 hours was the number where you started seeing breakdown, because they were just doing too much."
Kids need to be taught to pay attention to their bodies and to pull back if they are hurting. "I always tell athletes, when in doubt, take a day off," Gustafson recommends. "It's better if you're feeling achy or very sore to take a day off rather than go back out there and injure yourself worse."
Gustafson also says that he counsels athletes to take a week or two off after a heavy season of sports. "It's recovery time that gives the body a chance to heal," he notes.
To guard against overuse injury, parents should make sure that their children have a good basic fitness level, says Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of sports medicine at Children's Hospital Boston. "Encourage exercise and strength training," Dr. Micheli explains. "The stronger their muscles are, the more resistant they are to injury."
Stretching can also help prevent overuse injury. "Usually at the teen level, we find injury doesn't happen because athletes are weak, but because they are too tight," Gustafson says. "It's more lack of flexibility than it is lack of strength."
Stretches that could help save a child from injury include the hamstring stretch, quadriceps stretch, and calf stretch. "If they stretched those three muscles, it would probably alleviate a lot of injury," Gustafson says.
Protective equipment is also a must. "In contact or impact sports, you don't try to save money on equipment," Dr. Micheli adds. "Protective equipment is just that, and it needs to be fitted by someone who knows that they're doing."
All these precautions hold for practices as well as for games. Three of every five injuries related to organized sports occur during practices rather than games, according to the National Center for Sports Safety. Despite that fact, a third of parents often do not make sure that their kids take the same safety precautions during practice that they would for a game.
Good coaches teach their athletes all these things, but it sometimes can be hard to sort the good from the bad when it comes to youth coaches.
"At that level, the qualifications are very variable as to who's coaching them and who's teaching them," Dr. Micheli says. "These days, it's likely they've undergone a criminal background check, but it's a guess as to whether they know how to teach a kid sports safely."
Dr. Micheli says that parents should pay attention to whether a coach uses positive reinforcement, so that the kids not only learn the fundamentals, but also learn to appreciate the sport so that they'll love it for the rest of their lives.
Parents also need to make sure coaches aren't pushing kids too hard, where "they don't take into account the kids' level of fitness, and they put them on a strenuous training program that ends in injury," Dr. Micheli notes. "We're seeing this all the time."
Always consult your physician for more information.
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Sports can be played in an organized setting, at school, in the street, or even in the backyard. A child can benefit from participating in sports both emotionally and physically. However, proper precautions need to be taken when children take part in a sport, because their bodies are still growing and their coordination may not be fully developed.
Precautions can range from wearing proper safety gear to appropriate adult supervision and enforcement of game rules. To ensure that your child is participating safely in sports, be aware of the following high-risk situations:
- faulty or ill-fitting safety gear and equipment
- inappropriate skill, weight, and/or physical and psychological maturity level for the sport
- lack of adult supervision
- lack of appropriate hydration
- unsafe playing environment
- lack of enforced sports rules
The pressure to win when participating may cause unhealthy sports-related stress. Situations such as a poor relationship with a coach, or frustration about never getting to play in games can affect a child negatively.
Signs that your child may be suffering from stress related to a sport may include the following:
- loss of appetite
- sleeping more than usual
- withdrawn from friends, family, and/or activities
Deciding whether to withdraw a child from a sport should be based on what the child says and what the parent observes. Quitting may or may not benefit your child. On the other hand, "sticking it out" may also be detrimental to your child. Winning should not be placed above learning and playing the sports.
To avoid sports-related stress, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends making sure your child is in the appropriate age and skill group for that sport. Additionally, the rules and playing ground should be amended to make the sports fair for all who play (such as lowering the basketball goal or shortening the distance of a race).
Always consult your physician for more information.