Five Tips for a Safe Youth Sports Experience
Sara Jurek, MD

Sports provide kids with wonderful physical, social, and psychological benefits. As parents and coaches, our goal is to maximize these benefits while minimizing our athletes’ risk of injury. There are simple strategies for parents and coaches to help reduce preventable injuries. With the weather heating up, spring sports in full swing (pun intended), here are five tips for achieving a safe (and fun) youth sports experience.   

1) First Things First

Make sure that your child receives a preparticipation physical exam (PPE), performed by his or her pediatrician or other qualified heathcare provider. The goal of this exam is to maximize both the health of the athlete and his or her safe participation in sports. This exam may identify conditions that predispose the athlete to injury or illness and can provide strategies for prevention. The physical exam focuses on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.  

2) Warm-up

It is important to start off any physical exercise activity with five-to-ten minutes of low-intensity, aerobic exercise building to moderate intensity, aerobic activity (e.g., walking progressing to jogging, jumping rope, or jumping jacks increasing in intensity). This prepares the body’s cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems for more vigorous physical activity, increasing blood flow, elevating the body’s temperature, and improving range of motion of the joints. There is debate as to whether static stretching (a stretch held in a challenging but comfortable position for a brief period of time, usually between 10 to 30 seconds) or dynamic stretching (active movements of muscle that bring forth a stretch but are not held in the end position) following the five-to-ten minutes of aerobic activity is optimal, but the important principle is to allow the body proper preparation for the main sporting activity.

3) Stay Thirsty Hydrated

This tip cannot be emphasized enough. Hydration should begin well before exercise is initiated. Two hours prior to the start of exertion, drinking 16 ounces of water or a sports drink is recommended. Athletes must drink fluids during exercise to stay adequately hydrated - even a loss of 1 percent body weight can result in a reduction in athletic performance. Consumption of 5 to 10 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise is recommended. For prolonged endurance activities (lasting longer than an hour), or for multiple bouts of exercise on the same day, commercial sports drinks containing carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium are optimal. Multiple studies have concluded that many young athletes participate in their sports events in a state of dehydration. Encourage your athlete to drink fluids early and often, particularly in the warm weather.

4) Avoid Heat-Related Illness

In this case, a pound of prevention is definitely worth an ounce of cure. Summer is fast approaching and with the weather already heating up, our young athletes are at increased risk for heat-related illness including heat exhaustion and exertional heat stoke (one of the leading causes of death in sports). Strategies for prevention include pacing of the activity (having your child warm-up, starting off the activity slowly and then pick up the pace gradually), providing cool beverages including water and sports drink during sporting activities, ensuring adequate breaks in cool, shady areas, and making sure your child is wearing light-colored, loose, lightweight clothing. Ideally, at the start of a strenuous athletic program or after traveling to a warmer climate, athletes should initially limit the intensity and duration of exercise and gradually increase it over a period of one to two weeks to allow for their bodies to acclimatize.  

5) Don’t Overdo It

It is essential to the well-being of our young athletes to stay safe and avoid overtraining and overuse injuries. Athletes should never play through pain; pain is a warning sign and an indicator of overuse that should not be ignored. Overuse injuries can be subtle, occurring gradually over time, and early recognition and prevention is optimal. Young athletes should be encouraged to take time off to allow the body to rest and recover and to play different sports throughout the year. Large, sudden increases in activity level, duration, load, and intensity should be avoided. The goal is for the athlete to establish a solid foundation of fitness and strength, building up over time, to allow for pain-free and injury-free participation.