How to Keep Young Athletes Injury-Free

Here’s a question that bedevils virtually every parent with a child who plays sports: Is there anything you can do to keep your young athlete on the field and off the disabled list?

    It turns out the answer is yes. Tony Breitbach, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of athletic training education at Saint Louis University’s Doisy College of Health Sciences, says there are five things every parent can do to help their kids stay healthy and injury-free while playing sports this summer.

   “These are important, common-sense steps that many parents overlook or aren’t aware of,” Breitbach says.

   Following are Breitbach’s tips:

1: Make sure equipment fits properly. Kids generally grow fast, which means the gear that fit perfectly last year may be too small now. “Ill-fitting shoes can be an especially big problem,” says Breitbach. “Last summer’s baseball cleats will likely not be right for this summer.” Protective equipment, in particular, must fit properly and be appropriate for the sport, he adds. “If it doesn’t fit, it won’t protect.”

2: Watch their diet. To stay healthy while playing sports, kids need to eat a proper and balanced diet – low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates, with moderate amounts of lean protein. Athletes need lots of complex carbohydrates – what Breitbach calls “high-energy foods” – right before and after a game or workout.  
   For athletes, Breitbach says, a key part of a proper diet is staying well hydrated during and after a big game. “People place way too much emphasis on energy and sports drinks, when good cool water will do just fine. It’s even preferable in most cases.” He urges that you make sure your child has enough water for the particular sport or activity. “Don’t give him a bottle of water for a long game,” Breitbach says. “In that case, a jug would be better.”

3: Keep them well rested and not overbooked. The right amount of sleep and rest is critical to simply function day to day. Athletes also need it to help them recover from the stress or exertion of their game or activity. This is particularly true for kids who play multiple sports – sometimes in the same day, Breitbach says.
   “Parents need to be really careful about overscheduling their kids,” he says. “They need as much time as possible between games so their bodies can rest and recover.”

4: Help them stay physically fit. In general, Breitbach says, the more fit someone is, the less likely they are to be injured playing sports. The best way to keep your children in shape is never to let them get out of shape. Make sure they’re active all year round, and don’t rely on sports to keep them fit.
   Furthermore, Breitbach cautions, don’t sign your child up for a
sport just so he or she can lose weight.  “They need to love the sport,” he says. “The truth is, lots of sports aren’t conducive to weight loss anyway; in baseball, for instance, there’s a lot of standing around. If your kid needs to lose weight, put him on a healthy diet and join a fitness center where there are personalized fitness programs.”

5: Take care of injuries right away. Listen to your kid’s body, Breitbach says. Take scrapes, pains and aches seriously – and if your child is hurt, make sure the injury gets immediate medical attention. “Even something as simple as a scrape needs attention,” Breitbach says. “Scrapes need to be cleaned and covered up to avoid infections, such as staph, that are resistant to antibiotics.”

   Finally, if your child’s been injured, make sure that the play-or-no-play decision is made a medical professional. “They’re really the ones who are qualified to make that call,” Breitbach says. “A parent or youth coach isn’t.”