Help prevent sports injuries in kids by paying attention to their recovery—and avoiding specializing in one activity too early.
On any given weekend every athletic field across the country is blanketed with kids of all ages chasing soccer balls and throwing pitches. The pools are filled with budding competitive swimmers. The gyms are at capacity with tiny tumblers.
Inevitably during the week, sports medicine offices are equally filled with the same children in need of physical therapy or a knee brace. The pediatric injuries that pile up across all sports are increasing, experts say, as more kids become serious about their athletic endeavors at earlier ages.
The most common problems that parents are up against aren’t usually the acute injuries like broken bones or concussions (though, unfortunately, those also happen on the playing fields)—they are the kinds of injuries caused by using the same muscles, tendons, and ligaments over and over again.
1. Don’t specialize in one sport too early. Your child may exhibit exceptional talent for gymnastics or soccer, but concentrating on one activity too early in their lives will lead to the most common injuries, which are repetitive stress and overuse problems. Doing one sport also stunts coordination and neurodevelopment because kids don’t have the opportunity to use multiple muscle groups in different ways.
“During the early stages as kids are still growing, we want to make sure they are developing their motor skills in many different ways,” says Michelle Cappello, a physical therapist and clinical director at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals Sports Medicine Center for Young Athletes. “That way, they will play sports longer and live healthier lifestyles.”
When is it safe to pick just one sport? After a child has reached puberty. If your little athlete can’t wait, parents should make sure their children get three months away from the sport each year. The break not only shields kids from getting hurt, but it also can prevent mental burnout.
“Kids are being pushed to specialize by parents and coaches who say, ‘Oh, you’ll never get that scholarship if you don’t focus,'” says Dr. Cardone, who is also the chief medical officer of New York City Public Schools Athletic League. “We know for sure that is not the right thing to do.”
2. Check out the coach and program. Many youth programs are led by well-meaning parents who don’t necessarily have expertise in how to coach. Before registering a child for a particular team, ask around. Good coaches, who care about all the participants and give each child equal attention, usually get rave reviews. Typically children get hurt in programs that are focused mostly on winning over teaching the game and having fun. A big red flag is if a coach overplays the most-talented or strongest kids—seeing too much game time often results in injuries.
“Kids can play in a park with their friends—with no adult around—from sun-up to sundown and really not have any overuse injuries,” says Dr. Cardone. “Put a parent or coach in the mix directing them and that’s when they start to get hurt.”
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