We all know that sports are a fantastic way for children to develop social skills and motor abilities. At the same time, kids are particularly prone to injury as they grow. This is caused by a number of things, including decreased coordination, muscle imbalance problems and changes in flexibility as muscles become tight with growing bones.
As a coach, it’s important to know what the common injuries for children are, and how to prevent them. Your athletes and parents are relying on you to provide a safe playing environment, and injury prevention is one of the key ways to do this.
Here’s a quick overview of common injuries in young athletes, and the best strategies for prevention:
Overuse Injuries – As the name suggests, overuse injuries occur when children practice a specific technique over and over again, without providing the body enough time to heal in between practice. These are seen most often in the knee, ankle, elbow and shoulder joints, and symptoms typically include pain and swelling.
To give you an idea of overuse injuries, it’s very common to see jumper’s knee from volleyball or basketball, and throwing injuries in the elbow from pitching in baseball or softball. If you’d like to know what other conditions are common from overuse, check out the Overuse Injuries article from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
In terms of prevention, a few best practices include:
- Encouraging parents to sign their children up for multiple sports, instead of specializing right away.
- If you are increasing training, do not increase it by more than 10% a week (e.g. the number of pitches thrown in a day, or weight being carried).
- Incorporating a well-rounded exercise plan into training, including core strength, flexibility, and strength training.
Athlete Burnout – Athlete burnout is a child’s way of responding to stress in the sporting environment. Symptoms which represent athlete or sport burnout include fatigue, exhaustion, frequent illness, problems sleeping and inconsistent performance. Behavioral indicators may also be present, including feeling helplessness, anger, that the contribution to the team is not enough, or wanting to quit the sport. If you start to notice burnout signs in one of your athletes, consider these things:
- Encourage them to take some time off. This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to skip weeks or months at a time. Instead, they can come to every second practice or game, or attend practice for a shorter period of time.
- Fostering positive thoughts. The athlete may be overwhelmed, or feel pressure to perform well during the season. Ensure that they are still having fun with the sport, and provide encouraging thoughts on their contributions to the team.
- Providing them with decision-making autonomy to help with their confidence and enjoyment.
Growth Plate Injuries – Growth plates are the areas of cartilage or growing tissue at the end of long bones in children. These plates are the final portion of the bone that harden, which determine the future length and shape of the developed bone. Because growth plates are the weakest part of the skeleton in children, they are very vulnerable to fractures. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases has a great article which outlines the types of fractures that can occur, called Questions and Answers about Growth Plate Injuries.
Strategies to avoid growth plate injuries are:
- Ensuring the right equipment is worn at all times. This includes shin guards, elbow pads, helmets, and other forms of padding.
- Incorporating appropriate strength training into practices, as the enhanced muscle strength will help support the child’s skeletal system. Plus, strength training improves muscle density, which is linked directly to the development of bones and growth plates.
- Encourage your players to include lots of calcium in their diet to strengthen their bones.
Heat-Related Illness – We know that this isn’t an injury per say, but it’s still an important topic! Dehydration, heat stroke and heat exhaustion are all conditions that are common when participating in sports in high heat. Inadequate hydration and clothing, as well as intense physical exertion are also contributors to these conditions. The Kedrick Fincher Hydration Foundation has a great resource on heat-related illness, including warning signs, hydration guidelines and ways to calculate the heat index.
As a coach, you can help prevent heat-related illness by:
- Having athletes take frequent breaks. The best way to do this is to build it into a water break every 15-20 minutes to ensure players are hydrated as well.
- Reduce the intensity and duration of activity when heat is a concern
- Encourage athletes to wear light-colored, loose clothing
- If the heat is too severe, cancel the practice or game, or more to an indoor facility.
As the Spring season continues and preparation for the Fall season begins, we hope that these injury and illness prevention strategies are useful for you. Here’s to a fantastic and safe season!
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