Often, children and teens learn about sports injuries the hard way: by getting hurt.
Trial and error can work, but imparting some hard-earned wisdom is a safer bet.
We’ll share six tips about how to prevent, prepare for and respond to injuries children sustain during sporting events. In keeping with Florida Hospital’s whole-person philosophy on health, we’ll explore how to capture the psychological benefits of youth sports by affirming the values that underpin it.
1. Find Other Interests to Fill the Sports Void
For many kids and teenagers, sports becomes their social life, means of exercise and part of their identity.
For these children, an injury that consigns them to the bench may have more than physical consequences. It is common for athletes to become depressed when they’re injured and lose their athletic, social and emotional outlet.
If sports is your child’s life, consider what you might do if he or she has to take a break. Encourage them to develop other interests, and, if they get injured, consider your child’s emotional health as part of their physical recovery, too.
2. Listen to Pain
While sports require one to push the body, mind and spirit, pain is not weakness. It’s your body’s way of saying there’s a problem.
Young athletes might be told to tune out the pain. The problem with this advice isn’t that it’s always wrong — no athlete frets about sore muscles after a heavy workout — but that it’s too vague.
Some pain can safely be ignored, but some pain shouldn’t be, and even a veteran athlete may struggle to know the difference. It’s too much to expect kids to know.
Instead of asking kids to push through the pain, develop a habit of talking with them about it so that you can help them determine if it’s something to push through, or something that requires a doctor visit.
Soreness of the type you feel after a tough workout, for example, may actual signal a benefit. It is believed to be caused in part by tiny muscle tears. When the muscle repairs these tears, it grows stronger than it was before, one of the reasons our muscles grow stronger from exercise.
3. Overtraining is no Virtue
When a youth athlete tears her ACL, or a young pitcher tears a ligament in his elbow and requires surgery, the injury can appear sudden.
But, most of the time, injuries like these have a backstory: Overtraining.
It can be tough to know how much is too much, especially on competitive teams, but one common measure is to consider your child’s age. That number should be the upper limit on how many hours per week they play a given sport.
In addition, young athletes should limit playtime of any one sport to five days a week, and not play a single sport year-round.
It should be noted that a brief period of excessive training isn’t necessarily unhealthy, as long as there is a recovery period afterward.
An older study, conducted in 2001, found overtraining was much more common in individual sports compared to team sports. This makes sense — if your skill is the only difference between winning and losing, there will be greater pressure to overtrain.
4. Kids Can’t Bounce Back From Everything
While it’s true the children heal faster in many ways, this shouldn’t be an excuse to assume that they can withstand any injury.
Years ago, for example, children who got hit in the head were advised to shake it off and head back into the game. Now, we know better.
Concussions can heal with time and proper care — a bump on the head by itself is almost certainly not going to imperil your child’s future. But we now know that children recover slower from concussions than adults.
And avoiding another head impact during that recovery period is critical. Repeated concussions can cause long-term brain damage.
Another area to watch for are injuries to your child’s bones. Though children’s bones generally heal faster than adults’, they have a weak spot.
Damage to the part of the bones that are growing — the “growth plates” — can set that bone’s development onto the wrong path.
Florida Hospital for Children’s Orthopedics program has experts in diagnosing growth plate injuries and ensuring they heal properly.
5. Don’t Pick a Single Sport Too Early
By the time young athletes get to a competitive level of play, they are likely to be tempted by visions of elite teams and college scholarships. To get to that level, they are often told, they should drop their other athletic interests to focus on the sport they’re best at.
At some point, yes, talented athletes are likely to pick one sport and stick with it. But recent evidence suggests making this move too young raises the odds of injury.
According to a 2017 study, children who specialized in one sport — meaning they had quit a different sport, considered their primary sport most important and trained more than eight months a year — were 50 percent more likely to be injured.
Essentially, young athletes who specialize in one sport and the parents who encourage it are rolling the dice. They’re trading the risk of injury (or dropping out because it’s no longer fun for the child) for the chance to climb the athletic ladder.
So when should children specialize?
A 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests waiting until after puberty, usually around age 15 or 16, will “minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success.”
And while it’s intuitive that specializing early would make you a better player, the report notes that playing many sports gives young athletes a wide variety of skills that can later transfer to their primary sport.
6. You Can Get Hurt at Practice, Too
According to the Safe Kids USA campaign, 62 percent of sports-related injuries happen during a practice.
But about one-third of parents have acknowledged they don’t take the same safety precautions at games as they do at practice.
A similar trend is at work in concussions.
According to a 2015 study, 46 percent of concussions among youth happened during practices. But in high school and college, 58 percent of concussions occurred during practice.
This is likely because a game sets hard limits on how many players can be on the field and for
how long. During practices, everyone on the team can play at once, leading to more opportunities for injury.
Despite the risks of injury, Florida Hospital for Children is a believer in the value of sports to your child and your family. Youth sports support whole-health and well-being, which is something we’re always cheering for.
For more information, call us at (407) 303-KIDS or schedule an appointment on our website.