Keeping Your Young Athlete Injury-Free

More than 3 million U.S. kids get injured each year playing sports (see "Injuries by the Numbers”). If your elementary-school-age child is involved in an organized sport, he or she has about a 1 in 9 chance of getting injured, according to various estimates. Fortunately, most of these injuries are minor – bruises, sprains, strains and cuts – and do not require medical treatment. The level of risk depends on several factors, including the gender and temperament of the child and the sport itself.

The riskiest sports, in general, are football and soccer for boys and gymnastics and soccer for girls, according to Lyle Micheli, M.D., director and co-founder of the Sports Medicine Program at Children&rn's Hospital in Boston and author of Sports Medicine Bible for Young Athletes.

However, he adds, the risk of injury should not be used as an excuse to let children be couch potatoes. Sports are good for kids, he says. The physical activity improves their overall health and makes them less prone to obesity and the problems that come with it, such as Type II diabetes. Sports also help kids to develop self-discipline, teamwork and self-esteem.

What Parents Can Do
The good news is that there are things you can do to help keep your children safe while they’re playing sports:

• Check out your child’s coach. Dr. Micheli believes that coaches are the key to preventing sports injuries. He laments the fact that coaches in the United States, unlike other countries (Canada and the U.K., for example), do not have to be certified. He is working with the Red Cross to develop mandatory education for youth-sports coaches. In the meantime, it’s up to the parents to observe the coach.

“Use your eyes and ears,” he says. “The bottom line is that parents must work together with their kids’ coaches to make sports safer.”

• Your child should play with someone his or her own size, weight and skill level. Don’t let your child compete with poorly matched players, especially in contact sports. Children are more likely to get hurt if their competitors are bigger, stronger and faster. Daniel Boyle, M.D., author of Sports Medicine for Parents & Coaches, stresses that children in youth football, for instance, should be matched by both age and weight. Children over 10 years old are at particular risk, probably because they play faster and more intensely than younger children and their bodies are bigger, causing the impact of collisions to be greater.

• Get your child interested in more than one sport at a time. Micheli says it is not unusual for a child gymnast today to put in 25 hours or more of training per week. But that’s a recipe for repetitive stress injuries, he says. Some professionals caution against kids engaging in intense training in a single sport before they are in their teens. But try telling that to your budding Mary Lou Retton! At the very least, try to encourage your child to cross-train by doing something like swimming a couple of times a week in between gymnastics workouts.

• Your child should warm up first.

Warming-up helps loosen the muscles and prevent injuries. Experts  recommend a three-part warm-up:

- first, a light jog or other aerobic activity for 5 to 10 minutes;

- then stretching exercises;

- and, finally, drills related to the specific sport.

The warm-up can be fun, especially if the drills are done as games.

Micheli and other experts also recommend strengthening exercises. “Strength training not only enhances performance,” Micheli says. “It also makes the tissue stronger and less susceptible to injury.” He cautions, however, that children should always be supervised, preferably by a trained fitness instructor, when using strength-training machines and paraphernalia.

But strength training is not universally recommended. In fact, Dr. Boyle believes that prepubescent boys and girls gain little strength by lifting weights.

• Make sure your child eats well. Your child should eat a well-balanced diet, not a special “sports diet” designed to either increase or decrease weight.

Arrange a preseason physical for your young athlete. A preseason checkup is a good idea, whether or not it’s required. Your child should be in good health with no any underlying medical problems.

• Don’t let your child play without proper protective gear. This is essential to preventing, or at least reducing the severity of injuries. Children should wear helmets with shatterproof shields for baseball, softball and hockey, and protective eyewear for racquet sports and basketball. The gear should be in good condition and fit properly – old and ill-fitting equipment can be more dangerous than no gear at all.

• Take the weather into consideration. Limit your child’s practice during the summer to the early morning or late evening to avoid heat-related injuries. During winter, outdoor practice should be suspended if temperatures are too low. Your child should dress appropriately for the weather. Outdoors, try to get him or her to wear a hat (if not wearing a helmet) and sunscreen. Like adult athletes, children need plenty of water or other fluids before, during and after sports, even when it’s cold.

• Don’t impose your expectations on your child. It’s easy for parents to get caught up in their children’s sports. Don’t push your child too hard: a win-at-all-costs attitude can cause injuries and take the fun out of sports.

More Sports:

Doctor or Dr. Mom?: Guidelines for evaluating the seriousness of your child's injury.

Sports Injury Prevention Chart

Playing It Safe: Resources

What Makes a Great Coach: A Parent's Primer on Finding a Sports Mentor with the Right Stuff

From United Parenting Publications.