Headlines about the tragic death or permanent injury to a child who was competing in youth sports are becoming all too common. According to The Sports and Fitness Association, more than 31 million children ages 6 to 14 participated at least once in sports or activities in 2015. Studies show 3.5 million children younger than 14 are treated annually for sports injuries. This large number – 1 in 10 kids – is really astounding.
By their nature, it is difficult to plan for emergencies, especially those that occur on a playing field or court. However, a national task force has developed the most comprehensive guidelines to date on protocols for dealing with these sports-related accidents. They were announced at the Eighth Annual Youth Sports Safety Summit. The task force called for youth sports groups to develop training programs and education on safety issues, plus a system for monitoring compliance. Highlights of these guidelines can be found here.
The Most Common Injuries
In his career, Dr. Michael Landers, a sports medicine physician, and member of the referral line at the Texas Health Spine & Orthopedics Center, has treated thousands of children who have been injured while participating in youth sports. He noted the most common injuries experienced by his young athlete patients.
“Because most kids participate in soccer, football, basketball, and baseball, there are more injuries to the lower extremities,” he said. “The most common injuries I see in my practice are ankle and foot sprains. These are difficult to prevent. Strengthening the muscles surrounding the ankle and foot and ensuring that good-fitting shoes are worn can help prevent these types of injuries.
“With regards to preventing injuries such as concussions, proper-fitting helmets and other equipment are critical. Parents should always be involved in the choice of this equipment. I also believe that coaches should have additional training in the choosing of athletic equipment. Ill-fitting or older equipment are both dangerous to the health of young athletes.”
Do Most Youth Sports Leagues Have Adequate Training for Avoiding or Treating Emergencies?
This depends on the individual sports league.
“In the Dallas area, we have some larger soccer leagues and they do a really good job,” Dr. Landers said. “Unfortunately, some of the smaller leagues, which don’t have the funding, don’t have the resources necessary for this training. In many cases, these smaller sports leagues rely on parents to be coaches, and they have other jobs and don’t have the time to devote to this type of training.
“Some leagues are doing an excellent job, but some could use more training. It is very difficult to ‘enforce’ this preparedness when much of the coaching is on a volunteer basis.”
What Can Parents Do?
What Can Parents Do?
There have been numerous instances where a young athlete collapses on the field or court due to a preexisting health condition that was, until this point, undiscovered. Dr. Landers offered some advice for parents.
“Getting an annual check-up by the child’s pediatrician is a very good idea,” he said. “Many of the factors that might impact a child’s tendency towards specific injuries are based on medical or familial history. For example, if there have been cardiac events in the family or the siblings of the athlete have had cardiac problems, additional screenings such as an EKG (electrocardiogram) can be ordered.
“These risk factors may predispose the child to sports injuries. It’s not necessary to have this type of testing completed on every child, but a history-specific exam is absolutely important.”
Concussions are Common but Still Dangerous
“Concussions are fairly common for a couple of reasons. With children, their head-to-body-mass ratio is larger. If they play soccer, which involves a great deal of jumping, young athletes can get whiplash in the neck due to the size of their heads. This can lead to brain trauma and concussions,” says Dr. Landers.
“In contact sports such as football if the helmet is not fitted properly or if the child is not taught good tackling technique, the risk for concussion increases. The size and speed of kids are also leading to more concussions in contact sports. Bigger athletes traveling at a high velocity can certainly lead to concussions.”
The current trend of allowing a young athlete who is gifted in one sport to play that sport year-round is causing more youth sports injuries that are related to overuse.
“This is a serious problem for young athletes. If a child is going to play one sport, year-round, without getting any cross-training, there is a good possibility that he or she will experience overuse injuries. Parents should encourage these one-sport athletes to devote some of their training to weight training and stretching regimens.
“While it is challenging, parents should encourage their kids to take a break from their favorite sport and have an ‘off season’ for a few months. Another approach is to encourage the child to participate in sports that are not using the same moves. For example, if the kid is a soccer player, which puts demands on the lower body, she could be encouraged to participate in swimming, which develops the upper body and cardio-vascular fitness. For baseball players, switching to a sport such as soccer as a part of an ‘off season’ training program would be advisable.”
What About Weight Training for Kids?
Many young athletes build strength through weight training, but this can be problematic if proper lifting technique is not used. The age of the child is another important consideration.
“Bodyweight training can be safely done at any age,” Dr. Landers said. “However, heavy weight resistance training can cause injuries under some situations. Growth plate closure, which varies from child to child, is the most important criteria for deciding when heavy weight resistance training should be undertaken. The only way to determine this is to take an x-ray to see if the growth plates are closing.
“If a young athlete is using heavy weight training, this increase in pressure on the joints can lead to growth plate injuries. Lighter body weight training is fine for building endurance and muscle fitness, but in most cases, heavy weights should not be used until these plates are closed. For girls, this typically occurs at about age 13, and for boys, this happens between ages 16-18.”