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Kids have always loved sports, and who doesn’t get nostalgic at the thought of neighborhood kids trooping off with hand-me-down gloves to a dusty old ballfield. But increasingly, youth sports are becoming more competitive and more specialized. And, many experts agree, this means more sports injuries at a younger age.
It probably is not possible to turn back the clock to those carefree, Norman Rockwell days of yore – if in fact they really existed. But you can take steps to help keep your child healthy, both physically and emotionally.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Sports Medicine Institute and other experts have developed detailed guidelines for specific sports that cover issues like how many pitches young pitchers should throw, how much running young soccer players should do, etc. You can check out their Web sites for that information, and, if necessary, discuss it with your child’s coach. But in general, experts offer some common-sense guidelines for youth sports.
First, remember that sports are only part of a well-rounded child’s experience. Kids should have plenty of time to devote to their school work and to develop other hobbies. They also should have time to simply interact with their peers. No one suggests that kids should spend all their time lying on the couch watching TV and playing video games. But neither should all their time be scheduled.
Listen to your child. Your child’s reason for pursuing a sport might be much different than the reason you see. Kids play sports to be with their friends, to enhance their social status, to be part of a group. All those are legitimate reasons to play a sport. And, especially if a child decides to play at a higher competitive level, that decision should be driven primarily by a love of the game.
Do your research about the sports organizations you sign your child up for. Talk to other parents about their experience with a specific organization, or with a particular coach. Find out about the organization’s goals. Ask how coaches are chosen and what training they have. Ask about playing rules, as well as what safety guidelines are in place. Do your research before you sign your child up; once she’s on the team, you want to sit back and be a supportive parent.
Insist that your child wear high-quality protective equipment that fits. Always make your child wear a helmet when biking, and add wrist and knee pads when skateboarding. If you start when they are young, it may be easier to insist on helmets when they get to be teens. But stand firm, even when they inevitably balk.
Check equipment provided by a school team or organization to make sure it is in good shape and the right size for your child. Take care when choosing shoes, bats, gloves and other gear you buy for your child, so that it is the right size and will hold up well. If your child wears glasses, consider buying special sports glasses, which lessen the chance of injury or breakage. And insist that your child wear a mouthguard when playing any sport with the possibility of a blow to the mouth area.
Make sure your child warms up before a sporting event, and cools down afterward. Warm-ups should include both general warm-ups, such as jogging, as well as warm-ups specific to the sport.
Your child can avoid repetitive-motion injuries by avoiding too much repetitive motion. For example, if your child plays baseball, the organization should limit the number and type of pitches he can throw. He also may avoid some repetitive motion injuries by playing different sports. The marked increase in serious repetitive-motion injuries among younger players corresponds with an increase in sports specialization at a younger age. Most experts don’t think that kids should play sports – especially not the same sport – year-round.
Remember that your child’s body is still growing. Younger teens are especially susceptible to repetitive-motion injuries such as arm or knee problems, precisely because their bodies are still maturing. Don’t ask your child to do more than his body can handle, and don’t allow a coach to do so either.
Understand that, despite everyone’s best efforts, injuries happen. If your child sustains a sports injury, talk to your pediatrician. Most injuries are relatively minor and can be treated by the traditional RICE method: rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Finally, don’t get too caught up in the hype. Many parents push their children to specialize in a sport and to play on ultra-competitive travel leagues with the expectation that the child will get a college scholarship or maybe even play professionally. For the vast majority of kids, those expectations are very unrealistic. If you think your child is the next Albert Pujols or Dwayne Wade, realize that lots of other parents think the same thing. You might want to ask an objective observer, such as a high school coach, to evaluate your child’s athletic potential.
If you push your child too hard, or allow your child to push herself too hard, you not only can risk serious injury -- you can take all the fun out of sports. It’s important to remember that, in the end, we call them games.