Playing sports is a practical and fun way for many children to stay healthy and active. However, sports injuries account for almost one-third of all childhood injuries. So, finding a way for kids to get the most out of sports while also keeping safe is important for many parents.
Christine Boyd, MD, the medical director of the Sports Medicine Program at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, offers her expert advice for the best ways to help young athletes reach their peak performance and avoid injury.
According to Dr. Boyd, easing into sports is a good way to kick things off. Start slowly with family walks, Frisbee games, bike riding, or hiking in the weeks leading up to school. Jumping straight into a rigorous sports schedule after having a leisurely summer can make kids more prone to getting hurt. “One of the important things that parents can do is to gradually start increasing the activity level of kids,” Dr. Boyd advises.
Another thing to consider is how many sports your child will participate in each year. Keeping up with a demanding sports schedule can be a strain for your child. “Especially during times of rapid growth, kids have an increased risk of injury,” Dr. Boyd explains.
“If you have a child who’s going through their growth spurt, just be extra-cautious not to overload them with the volume of sports practices and games, because their injury rate is a lot higher,” she says. Kids who play hard also need plenty of sleep and quality nutrition to give their bodies time and fuel to recover after a long day.
Keeping it fun for the kids is vital, especially for younger children who may not be ready to appreciate the competitive nature of sports. “I like them to play a lot of sports and make sure that their environment they’re in is a positive one, as opposed to a super-intense and competitive sport for a 5-year-old,” she says. “I think they need to move their bodies in a lot of different ways because they’re still developing their basic movement skills, and you don’t want to isolate just one set of movement patterns in one sport.”
A sports physical with your child’s pediatrician is another way to help them prepare for their favorite sport. This visit can be combined with an annual wellness exam and is often required before starting school or participating on organized sporting teams. The doctor will use this time to assess your child’s overall health and pinpoint any concerns that could be a risk factor for injury. “Those typically are done a month or two before a child starts sports, primarily so that if there is a need for an intervention, we have time to do it,” Dr. Boyd says.
While younger kids tend to get minor injuries, like scrapes and bruises, the stakes go up as children get older. “As we head into middle school and high school, there tend to be more joint sprains, muscle strains, and some overuse injuries from their volume,” she says.
According to Dr. Boyd, knowing which injuries are common for each sport can also help parents keep an eye out for warning signs. “For baseball players, swimmers, or overhead athletes, we see a lot more shoulder and elbow issues,” she says. “For other sports, such as soccer, basketball, or football, we’ll see more ankle and knee injuries just because of the stress of the sport.”
With contact sports such as football, soccer, or basketball, parents should also be aware of the risk of concussions. “Concussions related to sports are obviously a hot topic and an important topic for us all to be mindful of,” Dr. Boyd points out. “Over the last five years, there’s been a large increase in public awareness about the injury and how to manage it and how to recognize it.”
If your child shows symptoms of concussion—dizziness, headache, blurred vision, fatigue, brain fog, or trouble walking—call your pediatrician right away. Dr. Boyd explains that some children may not show symptoms until several hours to a day later. “Even the next day, if they wake up and they have a headache, just think back to the game: Was there anything in the game that was a big tackle, a big contact, that might have led to a concussion?” she says.
Even with the best precautions, at some point your child could still get hurt. Dr. Boyd recommends watching out for swelling, worsening pain, and reduced range of motion in the joints. “My rule of thumb is, if something is very deformed or is significantly painful to the point that ice and ibuprofen at home aren’t cutting it, then you probably need to go to the emergency room or urgent care on the weekend,” she says. “Other than that, it can wait until next week and can be seen by your primary care doctor.”
Bruises, mild sprains, and other minor injuries can usually be treated at home, Dr. Boyd says. “Icing in the first 48 hours with gentle compression are the two things that can help the most,” she explains. “If somebody has a mild injury and they go back to sports too soon after and they don’t let it heal all the way, that’s another high-risk time for injury.”
It’s always a good idea to reach out to your child’s pediatrician when you have questions or concerns about an injury. They will be able to direct you to the best treatment and help if your child needs more specialized care. “Most sports injuries initially can be seen by the pediatrician, and then if a pediatrician feels like this needs to be seen by a specialist, I do think a pediatric orthopedic and sports-medicine specialist offers a lot of advantages,” Dr. Boyd says.
To learn more about sports injuries, check out “Treating a Minor Sports Injury” or “Sports Injury Prevention”.