So You’re Right in the Thick of the Fall Sports Season… it’s that time-of-year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.6 million kids visit the ER due to sports-related injuries. That’s enough to want to keep your kids on the sidelines! But, as John Hauth, Senior Director of Sports Medicine for St. Luke’s University Health Network and Vincent Moffitt, MD, St. Luke's Allentown Pediatrics, explain, there are things we can do to minimize injury risk and make sure our little athletes are safe, healthy and protected.
Keep Cool and Fuel
“It’s important for all adolescents and teens to maintain a healthy mix of carbs, protein and fruits and vegetables in their diets, but it’s especially important for young athletes,” says Dr. Moffitt. “Proper nutrition and hydration fuel their bodies so they can sustain and maintain their activity levels throughout practices or games.” Foods like fruit, nuts, string cheese, granola bars with less than six grams of sugar, can keep them nourished prior to practice or game, but also consult FDA guidelines to make sure kids are eating healthy all day long.
There’s no doubt that good nutrition is vital to keeping bodies strong, but for fall sports that generally start in the heat, hydration and watching for signs of heat-related illnesses are very important. “When engaging in rigorous exercise, especially sports that are equipment-heavy like football, young athletes lose fluid which can have severe consequences,” explains Hauth. “Kids and parents should be aware of signs of distress like feeling extremely tired, nauseous, confused or dizzy. And even before kids hit the field, parents should make sure their youth sports organization or school have athletic trainers and coaches who are properly educated and trained.” Most youth coaches have an emergency action plan and go through First Aid, concussion and CPR training and high schools are required to have certified trainers on sight as well as AED equipment. Even with all those safeguards in place, the onus needs to be on parents and kids to look out for one another, especially in excessive heat.
Too Much of a Good Thing
There are general principles about injury prevention that everyone needs to pay attention to when engaging in any sport, but according to Hauth, one of the most important is to allow kids ample rest and recovery. And that doesn’t mean just taking a day off during the week to rest, but it could mean taking a whole season off from one sport to recover, condition and explore other sports and physical activities.
“Years ago, kids had a ton of free play opportunities that would allow them to utilize a variety of muscle groups, but today, parents tend to involve their kids in activities that are very structured and regimented, which often means one sport all year long,” says Hauth. “Repetitive movements required by that one sport could harm the growing muscles and joints they support. In fact, the research on sports specialization suggests that one-sport athletes are at a higher risk of injury.” Hauth recommends more of a diversified approach to sports, especially when kids are young and growing. Baseball, for instance, can have a degenerative impact on structures in the shoulder and elbow because of the continual stresses of the overhand throwing action. So maybe, in the fall, encourage kids to take a break from baseball and try cross country or soccer which involves the leg muscles and challenges endurance.
“In addition to taking breaks from the same sport all year long, parents should be mindful of overscheduling in general, even if it’s in non-sports activities,” reminds Dr. Moffitt. “It’s so important for kids to not only free play outside, but play inside too. Things like building a fort, building with blocks, puzzles or imaginative play, are all necessary breaks for kids from their otherwise regimented lives.”
Be Prepared - Body AND Mind
Stretching and warming up before sports is imperative for injury prevention, but make sure the warm up is dynamic instead of static. “In order to get muscles and joints ready to perform, use dynamic warm ups like high knees, lunges, and other exercises that increase in intensity work as a good warm up,” says Hauth. “Static stretches are more beneficial at the end of a work out.”
Being prepared also means making sure kids have the right equipment for their sport and to make sure it’s fitted properly. “I can’t stress enough how important the role of equipment plays in injury prevention,” stresses Hauth. “If your child is in cross country, take the time to purchase running shoes from a store that has experts who can help select the best shoe for your child - one size or type does not fit all! If they are playing football, make sure mouthguards and helmets are fitted properly. And if you don’t know, ask for help. It’s worth the money and time investment to keep your kid safe.”
While preparing the body for challenging activity is vital, it’s also important to prepare mentally. “Kids and parents are busy, so being prepared and organized for both sports and for school is so important,” explains Dr. Moffitt. “Take the time the night before practice or a game to make sure uniforms and equipment are ready. This will reduce any pre-game stress and anxiety so kids and parents can just have fun, which is always the point of youth sports.”