Sports play an integral role in the upbringing of the average American child. Numbers from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association indicate that in 2011, 7.94 million children between the ages of 6 and 10 were members of either a recreational or competitive sports team.
While certainly a popular and positive way to get kids moving, there is risk associated with childhood sports. Concussions caused by impact sports have become a mainstream issue among even the largest of sports leagues. And there are many more health concerns when it comes to broken bones and sprains. Statistics show there is an increasing number of sports-related injuries each year, with approximately 8,000 children treated every day due to injuries inflicted by sports.
Still, sports are an important determinant in leading a healthy lifestyle. With obesity a serious health concern for American children – not to mention the fact that team sports can be a lot of fun – the question becomes how to make sports less risky for young athletes.
Adapt Sports for Child’s Play
Take a look at the sport(s) your child has chosen, especially when it comes to contact sports. Activities such as hockey, soccer, and football have the potential to get rough, and sports such as skiing and biking are riskier still. But rather than a full-out ban on activities that could be dangerous for kids, Dr. Robert Glatter suggests finding ways to make these sports safer.
This is most easily done at the team sports level to minimize the amount of contact players have with one another during practice and games. In regards to youth football, Dr. Glatter points to recommendations put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics that suggest establishing a non-tackling league, limiting physical contact during practices, and enforcing zero tolerance for illegal, head-first hits. Those adaptations should go for other sports, too.
Coaches and parents should also teach young adults the importance of stretching pre- and post-game, as well as taking rest breaks. Encourage routines like jogging around the soccer pitch, or stretching before heading up to bat, to instill healthy sports habits in children that will help keep them safe in the future. Frequent water and snack breaks will do the same, serving the purpose of rehydration and also giving children the chance to socialize with their coaches and peers.
Whether it’s banning headfirst sliding in baseball, prohibiting bodychecking in hockey, or simply ensuring kids are taking the proper number of breaks, there are a variety of ways coaches and parents can minimize risk.
Get the Right Gear
Good equipment can make all the difference in keeping children safe during sports.
The most common sports-related injuries among children involve muscle and tissue – not broken bones. That’s because children’s muscles and ligaments are still forming, making them more susceptible to injury. With the heightened risk of sprains, strains, and repetitive motion injuries, proper gear – such as cleats, wrist, knee, and ankle guards – plays an important role in keeping your child safe.
The problem is that sports gear is not affordable for all. Fortunately, there are foundations and charities in America that make it their mission to help support families and organizations in purchasing proper gear for young athletes. Hundreds of approved sports organizations in America have applied for and received equipment grants from Good Sports. Families can also find assistance through programs like Passback, an arm of the U.S. Soccer Foundation that collects and redistributes gently-used secondhand sports gear to underserved communities.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter how your children get access to the proper gear, so long as they have it in the first place.
Keep the Focus on Fun
Sports are demanding physically, but they can also take an emotional and social toll on children. It comes down to the purpose of play: if sports are a game, then is the entire premise to win? Too much emphasis on winning and competition can have a negative psychological impact on children.
A study published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine says children should be at least six years old before participating in an organized team sport. This is the age, the study argues, when there is less likely to be a mismatch between the child’s skill development and mental sports readiness. If a child isn’t at the right age, sports can lead to anxiety, stress, and the desire to no longer play. As the late American sportswriter Grantland Rice said: “it’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
Parents – especially the very enthusiastic ones – should be cautious, understanding that their expectation of a sport could be very different than that of their child. By recognizing that the main reason most children wish to play sports is to have fun, parents can put less pressure on the concepts of winning and losing. In fact, “not having fun” has been found to be the number one reason why both girls and boys quit playing sports. Ensuring children have a healthy and happy relationship with sports will help safeguard their mental and emotional health later in life.
One way to gradually introduce sports into a younger child’s life is with the “free play” method. Free play involves semi-organized games that don’t involve an element of competition. It’s during these moments that children can begin to grasp the concept of teamwork and how to follow directions.
In the end, no child should be denied the right to participate in sports. Children are naturally active beings who want to learn and play. By adapting contact sports, providing appropriate gear, and fostering a healthy relationship with sports, parents can ensure their kids are having fun while protecting their ability to continue playing sports in the future.