For the Matthews family, Saturday is a hectic day. Sonya has a soccer game at 9 a.m., but it’s not over when Andrew’s basketball practice starts at 10:30. In the afternoon, Andrew plays soccer while Sonya works out with her lacrosse team.
Although the parents have a rough time keeping track of it all, the Matthews children are doing quite well. During a time when childhood obesity is rampant, they are fit and healthy. And they really have no time or energy for teenage acting out.
Young athletes reap many other benefits — making friends, learning teamwork, understanding the intricacies of competition and cooperation, improved emotional health and self-esteem. They are, however, putting themselves at risk of sports injuries, some of which can cause long-term problems if not handled properly. More than 3.5 million children age 14 and under suffer sports injuries each year, according to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign.
Elementary age children are still developing coordination, but they are also smaller and don’t move as fast or as forcefully. As kids get older and gain strength, collisions become more of an issue.
Growth patterns vary, however, so grouping young athletes by age does not adequately take into account big differences in size, strength, coordination and skill. Many injuries occur when children who are small for their age try to keep up with their peers. Parents should look for organized programs that take these differences into account.
An adult who participates in sports — and, unfortunately, many coaches — may fail to understand that children are more susceptible to injury than adults. The bones of a child or adolescent contain growth plates, areas of cartilage where growth is taking place. These are relatively weak and particularly vulnerable to injury. Injuries to growth plates are potentially serious and should be treated by a pediatric specialist.
Whether in games or in practice, young athletes should be watched closely for signs of pain or fatigue. And coaches should be careful not to push young athletes into playing with injuries or over-training. Overuse injuries are common in adults as well, and the old adage of “working through it” nearly always results in a more serious injury. In a young person, these injuries are more serious because they can have an effect on bone growth.
In addition to excessive training, overuse injuries can be caused by improper technique, poorly selected or worn out athletic shoes, playing the same sport year round or playing multiple sports in the same season.
When overuse injuries do not respond promptly to RICE treatment (rest, ice, elevation, compression), the child should be examined by a doctor. Coaches and parents should avoid pushing their child back into action too quickly after any kind of injury. Any return to activity should be gradual, allowing the muscles, tendons and ligaments chance to adjust.
One very important precaution involves head and face injuries. If a child suffering such an injury experiences a headache, impaired vision, ringing in the ears or nausea, he or she may have suffered a concussion, even if there was no loss of consciousness. The athlete should be cleared by a physician before returning to action.
You can help keep your kids safe by following some simple guidelines. Make sure your young athletes —
HAVE THE PROPER GEAR. Most sports require standard protective gear, and it’s important for parents and coaches to ensure that the right helmet, mouth guards, eye protection and pads are used. Make sure it’s the right helmet for the sport and that it fits snugly and comfortably.
WARM UP before getting into vigorous activity and cool down afterward with proper stretches to maintain flexibility.
STAY COOL AND DRINK plenty of water. Children perspire less than adults, and sweating starts at a higher body temperature. Be wary of the signs of heat exhaustion (nausea, dizziness, weakness, headache, pale and moist skin, heavy sweating, weak pulse, disorientation) and of heat stroke (dizziness, confusion and skin that is hot and dry).
Heat-related injuries are dangerous and often occur because of a deficit in body fluids. Be sure young athletes have access to water and sports drinks.
Keeping young athletes safe simply requires some common sense. Actually, injuries are not all that common, and the benefits that kids get by participating in sports far outweigh the risks.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.