On any given weekend every athletic field across the country is blanketed with kids of all ages chasing soccer balls and throwing pitches. The pools are filled with budding competitive swimmers. The gyms are at capacity with tiny tumblers.
Inevitably during the week, sports medicine offices are equally filled with the same children in need of physical therapy or a knee brace. The pediatric injuries that pile up across all sports are increasing, experts say, as more kids become serious about their athletic endeavors at earlier ages.
The most common problems that parents are up against aren't usually the acute injuries like broken bones or concussions (though, unfortunately, those also happen on the playing fields)—they are the kinds of injuries caused by using the same muscles, tendons, and ligaments over and over again.
Short of bubble wrapping your children before they head to practice, experts say parents can do a lot to protect them from injuries. Sports, after all, are good for kids—within reason. Here are five ways to help your child stay active for the long haul:
1. Don't specialize in one sport too early
Your child may exhibit an exceptional talent for gymnastics or soccer, but concentrating on one activity too early in their lives will lead to the most common injuries, which are repetitive stress and overuse problems. Doing one sport also stunts coordination and neurodevelopment because kids don't have the opportunity to use multiple muscle groups in different ways.
2. Check out the coach and program
Many youth programs are led by well-meaning parents who don't necessarily have expertise in how to coach. Before registering a child for a particular team, ask around. Good coaches, who care about all the participants and give each child equal attention, usually get rave reviews. Typically children get hurt in programs that are focused mostly on winning over teaching the game and having fun. A big red flag is if a coach overplays the most-talented or strongest kids—seeing too much game time often results in injuries.