When we enroll our kids in any youth sport, we don’t plan to put our kids in harm’s way. We vaguely consider the possibility of injury, especially when buying shin and mouth guards, but we don’t dwell on those chances. We expect that 99 percent of our children’s participation in a sport will strengthen their health, fitness and ability to work well with others. We wouldn’t be surprised at a few bumps and bruises, and we do know that broken bones and torn ligaments come with the territory. Yet, we don’t see any of these injuries as a reason to be cautious. Unfortunately, there are some darker inflictions that stain youth sports with serious consequences. Some are unpreventable, but we can actually protect our kids from many of the most horrendous injuries with proactive vigilance and intervention.
Recently, the news reports have been filled with depressing stories of young players facing paralysis, brain injury, even death from injuries they incurred while playing. While some players had pre-existing conditions that led to their injury, such as heart defects or blood disorders, most suffered from a direct result of the sport they were playing. These severe injuries can be attributed to overuse and underdevelopment of the body, unsafe conditions, aggressive coaching and ignoring symptoms. As parents, we can educate ourselves about these situations so we can better ameliorate their costs. We need to be serious advocates for the safest possible playing conditions. Certainly sports require contact and fierceness, which can lead to injury, but those injuries should be within normal expectations, not extreme cases with life-threatening or life-altering results.
Overuse and underdevelopment harm comes when youth players aren’t properly trained physically or are pushed to practice tactics far above their developmental level. Young people have muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons that are still strengthening and growing. Expecting them to perform the way adult players do can lead to serious and long-term injury. For example, girls have a higher incidence of ACL injuries, but there are proven training exercises they can do in the younger years to help protect their knees. Youth players don’t always have the control to pull back on tackles and kicks, or they may lack the impulse control that keeps them from stomping on players who are down. Therefore, we need to be sure that coaches are carefully monitoring players and staying on top of the behaviors of the most aggressive team members. Doing repetitive skills and movements can lead to stress fractures, but also to strains that can be even harder to resolve than a sprain, tear or fracture. Kids need to do warm-ups and cool-downs every practice and game to protect their bodies. No one should be pushing any player to attempt skills beyond those that their bodies and brains can handle. In fact, kids should be concentrating on skill development up to age 12 or 13 and not on games. The stronger their development, the stronger their ability to resist both common and serious injury. Find a club that recognizes the need for youth players to be developed fully before they begin aggressive competition.
All too often kids face unsafe conditions when they play, which we should be monitoring. The biggest problem is dehydration. We are all too often loathe to stop a game or a practice for water breaks, but the numbers of players who suffer from heat exhaustion and heat stroke grows every year. These are serious conditions that can lead to brain injury and even death. Often by the time symptoms appear it can be too late. We need to insist that players remain adequately hydrated. We also need to be aware of dangerous playing surfaces. We don’t want to embarrass other teams by reacting to their field environments, but huge pits, exposed sprinkler heads, overly slippery conditions, and debris on the pitch can contribute to serious and avoidable injuries. No game or practice should be conducted in unsafe conditions. This also means lightning, which too many of us ignore. The guidelines state that all players, fans and staff need to clear the field and go to covered safety at the first sign of lightning, which includes thunder, and should not be allowed to return until there has been no weather activity for 20 minutes. We may think lightning is far away, but since it is dictated not by air strikes but by ground conductivity, we can never be sure of when a charge could appear. Finally, we need to be sure that all goals are properly anchored and prevent kids from hanging or climbing on them. Every year, kids are hurt by falling goal stands that they have pulled over on themselves, which can lead to various injuries.
While we all love to win, we have to be cautious about overly aggressive coaching. Coaches should be properly licensed and well aware of the development levels and abilities of their players. For example, a coach that encourages slide tackles younger than U-12 risks injury either to his player, the opponent or both unless the skill is properly taught and the players have enough maturity to use them wisely. No coach should ignore weather conditions and should watch carefully and plan for hydration. Coaches of young players should be focusing on the development of players’ skills and bodies. Team tactics and games can come later when young bodies are better equipped for those stresses. Most importantly, a good coach will put safety first. There are pieces of safety equipment beyond shin guards that young soccer players might consider using such as head guards and heart protectors. Even if a coach doesn’t insist upon them, he or she should be sure no player is ridiculed for using that equipment. Creating an environment where kids understand boundaries means protecting them from serious, avoidable injury. Coaches should seriously rein in any player who acts too aggressively or violently. Kids need to learn the appropriate levels of attack and when restraint is called for. If a coach likes to see kids bully their way through a game, he or she is risking player injury.
Even if a child is injured, we can help keep the long-term bad effects at a minimum by not ignoring symptoms. Kids complaining of joint, muscle and head pain should be checked out. Minor injury can turn into major injury if not treated properly when it happens. Most commonly ignored are concussions. We’ve learned over the last few years how best to treat a concussion and the importance of treating them completely. Any head injury means a player shouldn’t play again that day, but any head injury with any amount of black out, even for few seconds, should be seen by a doctor immediately. We’ve all seen players stride defiantly to the sidelines after a bad hit, anxious to keep playing, and a few moments later collapsing due to brain inflammation. In addition to concussions, any joint or extremity swelling should be regarded as serious until the cause is medically determined. Small, normally insignificant tears or strains can turn into far more debilitating injuries if not treated properly. Strains should be treated with applications of either heat or cold per the doctor or trainer, and kids need complete rest from playing to recover. We certainly don’t want our kids to become hypersensitive to illness and injury, but we also don’t want them to exacerbate a simple injury into a worse one. Treat complaints matter-of-factly without undue drama. You can be sympathetic without being panicked even if your child seems to have something serious. Calm on your part will help your child stay calm. Be very aware of any signs of dehydration that doesn’t require just high heat and humidity to appear. Over exertion can bring on symptoms. Encourage your child to take responsibility for staying hydrated and for noting any light-headedness or stomach cramps that can be the first warnings of heat exhaustion or stroke. Most importantly, teach them to keep the coach informed if they feel they need medical attention.
Although youth players collapsing from concussions or heat stroke isn’t common, and horrible injuries where a hit in football or a ball striking the chest resulting in serious consequences are mercifully limited, many of even these outcomes can be avoided with pre-emptive measures. If kids play within their physical limits, aren’t pushed by coaches or parents to stretch beyond their abilities, and recognize and treat their minor injuries right away, they can usually play safely without long-term interruptions. While crutches, braces and casts might be badges of honor among players, they also represent the possibility of enduring impairment. We want our kids to feel free to play with some abandon, but we also need to be vigilant for any trouble.