It’s back-to-school time, and that means a lot of kids are also back to playing team sports. Most schools have enacted Covid precautions for sports, such as vaccine requirements, regular Covid testing, masking, and more. For parents, one of the most important things that may have gotten lost while trying to protect kids during the pandemic is protecting their student-athletes from injury.
Whether basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, track, or cheerleading, participating in team sports can have many advantages for kids and teens—building their self-esteem and strong friendships, improving fitness and establishing healthy habits, developing character and fostering a sense of teamwork, teaching discipline, and much more. But participation in team sports, especially at the high school level, can also come with serious health risks and challenges.
Student-athletes face risks.
The risk of sports injuries is always a potential danger for student-athletes. Ninety percent of student-athletes report some type of sports-related injury, with 12 percent of those injuries involving concussions or head injuries. Fifty-four percent of student-athletes have confessed to playing while injured with many reporting they downplayed or hid their injury and pain so they “wouldn’t let their team down.” Most alarming, between 2008 and 2015, there were more than 300 sports-related deaths among young athletes in the U.S.
There are many precautions that both parents and schools can take to help prevent student sports injuries, concussions, and death. When your child joins a school team, it’s important to make sure your child’s school is taking all of the necessary precautions to protect your child.
Preventing sports injuries
As a parent, there are some important precautions you can take to help prevent your child from getting injured when participating in sports:
• Proper equipment. Make sure your child has the proper equipment for the sport he/she is playing and that safety gear such as helmets, shoes, mouthguards, eyewear, and other gear is worn and fits properly. Ask the coach for a list of safety gear your child will need for a particular sport. Check the website of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) for specific lists per type of sport.
• Properly maintained and safe playing fields and surfaces. Ensure that your school maintains the fields and other surfaces, such as basketball courts, so they are safe for student-athletes. They should be free from holes and other flaws that could cause a child to trip and fall.
• Adult supervision. Any sport that kids are involved in should be supervised by qualified adults. Coaches should have training in first aid and CPR and demonstrate a commitment to student safety.
• Appropriate preparation. All student-athletes should regularly practice proper warm-ups and training sessions before practices and games. They should also be allowed to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after practices and games, and be allowed periods of rest.
• Time off. Young athletes’ still-growing bodies need time off to rest. Make sure your student-athlete gets at least two days off for rest per week.
If your child does get injured while playing a sport, it’s important not to let them continue to play until they can be assessed by a doctor. Many kids will try to push through the pain because of fear of letting their team down, and if they keep playing while injured, it can lead to a more serious injury that can put them out for the season.
Head injuries are among the more serious types of injuries that can happen to young athletes. Concussions can happen when a child takes a hit to his/her head or body. This blow causes forceful movement of the brain inside the skull. Concussions can be mild or traumatic, depending on the severity of the impact. Concussions can occur in all types of sports, but they tend to happen most often in football, soccer, basketball, and volleyball.
You can help prevent your child from sustaining a concussion when playing sports by making sure he/she has the correct safety headgear for his/her sport and that it fits correctly. Helmets are the first line of defense in preventing concussions, but they don’t eliminate the risk entirely. Teach your child to make smart choices on the field or court that will reduce his/her risk of sustaining a hard blow to the head.
Heat illness and risk of death
Although rare, heat illness is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics. Students usually return to school in August or early September when the weather is still hot in many parts of the U.S. Sports practices often start even earlier in August for many sports such as football. Most heat-related deaths happen during these first few days of practice and can be a result of overexertion or doing too much, too quickly. Students participating in high-intensity outdoor sports during the summer months are at the greatest risk for heatstroke and heat-related cardiac arrest. However, heatstroke is totally preventable in student-athletes.
It’s important that both students and coaches recognize the symptoms and progression of heat illnesses. The first sign is heat cramps: muscles begin cramping. Next is heat exhaustion: the athlete begins to feel fatigued, dizzy, and nauseous or may sometimes vomit. If left untreated, this can progress to heatstroke, a potentially life-threatening condition in which a person becomes unconscious or delirious and has seizures.
Tips for preventing heat-related illness in student-athletes:
• The student-athlete should arrive at the practice or game well hydrated and should drink water or sports drinks regularly during his/her time outdoors.
• Student-athletes should get extra and longer breaks when practicing or playing sports outdoors in the summer heat.
• Athletes should reduce their intensity of exercise until their body is used to the heat.
• Practices and games should be held during the coolest parts of the day.
• Teach your student-athletes to speak up if they don’t feel well during practice. Let them know it’s OK to listen to their bodies if they don’t feel right and to take a break and hydrate, or notify their coach if they feel faint or dizzy in the heat. These are warning signs of heat illness and taking proper precautions can be a matter of life and death.