Injuries that result from youth sports are becoming more common. The injuries aren't just the expected bumps and bruises that come with being active, either. Pediatricians, orthopedists (doctors who specialize in the treatment of bones, joints and soft tissues) and physical therapists are seeing more serious injuries. These include ligament tears, which can sometimes lead to lifelong disability.
Also, many youth are dropping out of sports entirely, even before they reach high school. Sometimes it's due to burnout. Or the pressure from coaches and parents takes the fun out of the activity. So students who exercised regularly are no longer doing so. This is just as bad for overall health as a serious injury. Without the habit of regular exercise, children are far less likely to be active as adults.
So what can parents do to keep their kids healthy, safe and happy — both now and in the future? Here are four simple rules to follow.
1. Make sure your kids learn and use proper techniques for their sport. This sounds obvious, but it's not. Many coaches are well-meaning but unprepared parents who have little or no coaching experience. They may not be aware of correct techniques to avoid injury. When parents are choosing leagues and coaches, they should ask the coaches about their experience, techniques and philosophy of the sport. For example, good technique and training go a very long way toward preventing injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament. This knee injury can end an athlete's career. And it markedly increases the risk of arthritis.
2. Don't overdo practice. We all know that to excel at something takes practice. So it would seem that more hours of practice are better when it comes to sports. And to some extent, that's true. But the more hours young bodies spend in practice every week, the higher the risk of injury. I can't say how much is too much. It depends on lots of variables. For example, an hour of practice once or twice a week might be fine for a younger child. For a high school student, however, two hours every day after school might be appropriate. (The point is that younger children should spend less time practicing than older children.)
Also, what is happening during practice is also a consideration. Varied activities and plenty of rest time during practice are much easier on the joints and muscles than repetitive activities at a consistently high intensity. The most important thing is probably to pay attention to your child's energy level, interest and any physical complaints. And it's a good idea to get your doctor's advice, too.
3. Vary the sports and activities. Another thing that often happens in the pursuit of excellence is early specialization. Young children end up playing just one sport (or maybe two) all year round. This can lead to stress injuries — and burnout. It also tends to make exercise more about performance in a particular sport. This is less likely to create a sense of enjoyment — and make exercise a life-long habit.
4. Keep the right attitude. Remarkably few young athletes will qualify for athletic scholarships. Even fewer will ever play professional sports. Yet sometimes, as one sits on the sidelines of a youth competition, you'd think that every child was headed for one or the other. That kind of pressure and expectation of achievement is a quick way to make kids anxious, take the fun out of playing, and lead them to quit. And when they stop playing, they may never get back to it. They become sedentary children who grow into sedentary adults. Encourage your child to work hard and do his or her best, but rather than expecting achievement, expect fun!
Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.