Diabetes, heart disease and cancer are the top three killers in the US and exercise can help prevent them all! For health conscious parents, one of the big upsides of youth athletics is helping kids to learn how much fun exercise can be and having them take that lesson into their adulthood.
Without the proper training, however, injuries sustained in youth athletics could actually increase the risk for a sedentary adulthood. Recent estimates from American Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) indicate 5.5 million youth and high school athletes receive treatment for a sports related injury each year. While those injuries range from minor to significant, the shear volume of injuries should give us pause.
The National Institutes of Health research shows the greatest number of youth sports injuries come from three causes:
- Poor training procedures
- Use of the wrong gear or protective equipment
While there is nothing to be done about the accidents that occur in sports, the other two leading risks can be significantly reduced with a little education and small changes to training procedures.
Prehab — this is a term used for training targeting the prevention of common injuries. Strong muscles and proper body mechanics can significantly reduce the risk of injury to vulnerable joints such as the knees and elbows. Even though athletes have been jumping, landing and running since childhood, many are not employing mechanics to minimize impact and twisting forces on the knees. Tight hips may limit movements in the upper body, increasing the risk of elbow injuries associated with throwing sports. An athletic trainer, sports performance coach, or physical therapist can work with a youth athlete to teach them proper training techniques and mechanics and reduce their risk of injury over their lifetime.
Muscular imbalances — muscles work in pairs — chest and upper back/rear shoulders, abs/lower back, quads/hamstrings, etc. While one set is contracting to create movement, the opposite set of muscles work to control the movement. Typically, a particular sport uses a specific set of muscles most often, this can cause one half of a muscle pair to become stronger than its counterpart. This can cause any number of injuries — from strains in the weaker muscle to unstable joints. A well-rounded strength training program can bring these pairs back into balance.
What are some other common sense precautions to reduce an athlete’s risk of injury? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Take breaks: during practice sessions and games to reduce risk of injury and prevent heat illness.
Use the appropriate gear: proper fit is an important piece of gear reducing the risk of injury. And technological advances in materials and research of sports injuries are changing how protective gear is constructed. Make sure your protective gear is up to date.
Stay hydrated: Athletes should be drinking water before, during, and after exercise. Wearing light, wicking clothing to help keep cool. Coaches and trainers should limit practice and play when heat or humidity is high.
Build strong muscles, ligaments, and tendons: Each of these of tissue have their own growth rate — ligaments and tendons take longer to strengthen. The weakest of these tissues will determine the overall strength of them all.
Increase flexibility: Stretching should be an important part of overall training and competition — not a tacked on extra if there’s time. Make sure to stretch after muscles are warmed up!
Always use proper technique. If an athlete is too tired to maintain proper technique, they are too tired to play or compete. Proper technique is what keeps an athlete safe!
Play safe: coaches and leaders should enforce strict rules against headfirst sliding (eg in baseball), spearing (football), and body checking (ice hockey), and stop the activity if there is any pain.
There is no magic bullet to ensure youth athletes stay injury-free into adulthood but following these common sense principles give athletes the best shot of thriving for a lifetime in the positive environment sports can create.