Play It Safe
Every sport places your child at risk for injury
By Ruth Diamond

Parents of young athletes are more than aware that football players are at risk for concussion, and soccer players may sprain (or break) an ankle. But every sport carries its own set of challenges and often unnoticed dangers. Getting to know these less obvious risks is essential in keeping young athletes safe and healthy.

Gymnastics: the highs & lows

Merrick Wetzler, MD

Young athletes are often inspired by stars like Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee to push their limits, but this can have its pitfalls, especially when the body isn’t physically ready to defy gravity. 

“Younger and younger gymnasts are doing more and more complicated moves,” says Merrick Wetzler, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Advocare South Jersey Orthopedic Associates. “But remember, bones, tendons and ligaments all grow at different rates.” 

The constant pounding of the body that young gymnasts endure makes them susceptible to growth-related conditions like Sever’s disease, an inflammation of the heel, common in children ages 8 to 14, as well as Osgood-Schlatter disease, characterized by knee pain, in kids 10 to 15. Such conditions can flare up due to the demanding nature of gymnastics, including pounding to the body from handstands, jumps and vaulting that also may lead to a range of overuse injuries – from twisted ankles and wrist strains to more serious problems like ACL tears and shoulder injuries.

His advice? “Encourage kids not to try high-risk moves they’re not comfortable with,” he says. “Have them take baby steps, make sure they have proper coaching and spotting, rest between events and practice, practice, practice.”

Kathleen Baumgardner, DC

Dance: Finding the right moves 

The grace of dancers on stage often hides the physical toll it takes on their bodies. “When they’re not dancing, kids need to be wearing very supportive shoes,” says Kathleen Baumgardner, DC, of Health Goals Chiropractic Center in Marlton. 

This simple change can reduce the risk of injuries like stress fractures and sprains, common in dancers due to the lack of cushioned footwear and repeated high-impact moves on hard floors. Baumgardner strongly cautions against certain popular shoes like Uggs or flip flops. “They’re the devil,” she says. “They provide zero support.” 

And it’s not just shoes that can cause problems. How young dancers carry their belongings, and themselves, during non-dancing hours matters a lot. Heavy backpacks, or wearing them the wrong way, can lead to slouching and back pain. “Make sure they’re carrying any backpacks or bags properly, and that they’re using good posture – you know, all the things kids don’t want to do,” she quips.

Wrestling/Martial Arts: grappling with self-reliance

In wrestling, the grappling action is intense. This kind of tough physical activity can lead to injuries like sprains in the neck, back, shoulders, knees and ankles. There’s also the risk of bruises and skin infections due to close contact with other wrestlers and the mat. Concussions are a concern too. 

Martial arts, although not as full-on as wrestling, involves lots of twisting and bending, which can lead to injuries. While both sports take safety seriously, parents should monitor that their kids are matched with appropriate sparring and grappling partners, Wetzler says. It’s also key for them to eat well, especially foods rich in protein, and to get enough rest between matches.

Wetzler, a former high school and college wrestler, points out that grapplers get good at understanding their bodies. “They’re relying on only themselves on the mat, which makes it more obvious when they’re not feeling well or if they’re dealing with an injury,” he says. 

Tennis: striking the right balance

The agility and power required to serve and volley on tennis courts brings its own set of challenges. “It’s not as injury intensive as contact sports, but you still have to watch out for overuse injuries,” explains Wetzler. 

This is particularly true for common conditions like tennis elbow, resulting from repetitive racket swings, and shoulder issues like rotator cuff tendinitis, stemming from vigorous serving motions.

Tennis, like baseball, is a sport where overuse injuries come from favoring one side of the body over the other, adds Baumgardner. “To balance out the mechanics, they really need to practice with both sides. For every 2 times on the dominant side, practice once on the other side,” she recommends.

Cheerleading: beyond pompoms & spirit

Cheerleading goes way beyond chants, demanding strength, flexibility and some serious acrobatic skills. Common injuries like ankle and wrist sprains often come from the high-impact routines and daring stunts. Knee injuries, especially ACL tears, are risks, mainly from all the intense jumping and tumbling. 

Similar to gymnastics, daring stunts pose a risk from falls or accidental impacts. Back injuries, such as muscle strains and stress fractures, can result from dynamic bending and twisting movements. More so than other sports, Baumgardner says, cheer is concerning because there are not enough injury-prevention rules. 

“With football and other contact sports, there are rules designed to address and reduce injury risk,” she says. “With cheer, there are simply not enough rules to protect the kids. Younger girls are forming the base of pyramids when they don’t have the stability for the role, they don’t use mats and they’re flipping in the air and often falling on hard floors. 

Injury Prevention: A guide

Injury prevention begins long before the season’s first whistle. Baumgardner emphasizes the importance of conducting a thorough evaluation 6 to 8 weeks before the season. This includes assessing range of motion, flexibility and core strength to pinpoint any weaknesses. 

Wetzler underscores the need for balancing sports with downtime. “Kids need breaks to just be kids,” he says, noting regular rest periods can rejuvenate young athletes and enhance their enthusiasm and performance.

Recognizing when a child might be playing through pain is also vital. “Kids don’t always know when to slow down,” he says. “Every game feels like the biggest game of their lives, and they want to play no matter what.”

Parents can play a crucial role in monitoring and understanding their children’s limits. “If they’re not performing as usual, start asking if something’s wrong,” he adds.

Baumgardner also notes the pressure older kids face, whether self-imposed or from team dynamics. “Sometimes my daughter will say, ‘I just can’t do it today,’ and I support her decision to rest,” she adds, “that way they learn to read their own body and slow down if they need it.” 

January 2024
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