The Biggest Risks for Kids Playing Sports
Let’s just look at the reality of the world of sports for kids. This is what we know:
· Children have less coordination, slower reaction times, immature muscularity, immature nervous systems, less motor skill, and are not as accurate as adults. By this I mean, children do not have a fully developed nervous system to control their movements and coordination. In addition, the most important part of the nervous system is the brain, and in children it is not fully mature in the areas of reasoning, emotions, and decision making which bears risks. With respect to sports, this can lead to risky behavior.
· Kids are trying to develop athletic skills with immature bodies that at times cannot keep up with the demands of the sport. For example, it’s unrealistic to expect a ten-year-old basketball player to slam dunk or for an eleven-year-old football player to run 40 yards in 4.8 seconds.
· There is an increase in intensity and physical demands as the kid moves from youth to club sports, middle school to high school. In boys, for example, the transition from tenth to eleventh grade is sometimes referred to as the “boys to men” summer because many boys go through their major growth spurt around the age of sixteen. It is not uncommon to have the team come back to school after summer break and not recognize 50 percent of the squad, as they have grown taller, voices have changed, and facial hair has made an appearance.
· Children are not mature enough to assess the risks involved with sports and often will take more risks. I have seen kids play through the pain of a broken ankle and not tell their parents. In addition, a child will feel fatigue and not report it to a coach, and then attempt a dangerous tumbling move in gymnastics. The legs wobble and the ankle rolls on the landing.
· Kids are at greater risk of a sports-related injury when they first start a sport. This seems obvious, but they are being asked to do moves and maneuvers they may not have done before (or done much, without practice).
Sports injuries are reported more commonly in girls between five and nine years old than in boys. It’s just the way our society works. Girls don’t play hard like little boys do, so when faced with kicking a soccer ball, it takes them more time to develop the coordination, and that of course bears more risks as well.
Girls and boys between five and nine are pretty similar in the way they move and play sports. As they mature, their body and their mechanics change. Testosterone tends to be much less in girls, especially as kids enter puberty. Testosterone is linked to aggression and aggressive play. At a certain point, boys are just more aggressive than girls, due to hormonal differences.
In addition, once they get older, and the body changes, girls tend to develop differences in mechanics compared to boys. For example, wider hips in girls cause the knees to move more to the center of the body (knock knee pattern) during the landing, as the body tries to balance itself. Studies have shown that girls, as they get older, start to land from a jump with their knees moving inward (knock knee), which can put their ligaments at risk for injury. When they are younger, they tend to move and land from jumps more like boys.
Society encourages boys to be more aggressive than girls. This may be changing on the sports field, but in the end, nature and hormones rule. During puberty (about ages ten to fourteen) boys report more injuries (rate and severity) than girls because now the stakes are higher and the hits are heavier on the playing field.In addition, boys now have more testosterone and are developing mature muscles. They simply can hit harder because they are more physically mature than before.
Between the ages of ten and fourteen, boys are twice as likely to be treated in a hospital emergency room for a sports-related injury than girls. In addition, boys more often suffer from multiple injuries than girls.
The risk of a sports injury is associated more with a child’s developmental stage than with the child’s chronological age or body size. Given the same age and weight, a child who is developmentally mature is at less risk for injury than an immature kid because the immature child has open growth plates, less developed muscularity, and a less developed neuromuscular system in general. Muscles protect joints and give the child strength against an opponent. Open growth plates are a common area for injury in the growing kid. The neuromuscular system contributes to balance, coordination, and ability to resist the blow from a contact sport or the awkward landing from a jumping sport. A more mature athlete can run faster, jump higher, land solid, hit harder, throw farther, and play smart.
Developmental maturity can be graded with the Tanner Stages (see the examples later in this chapter). The speed of development toward maturity is determined for the most part by genetics and not by all the Wheaties they are devouring (Marshall and Tanner, 1969, 1970).
The risk of sports-related injury is dependent not only on use of protective gear but also on the condition of the playing surface. Poorly fitting equipment and badly maintained playing surfaces can cause injuries. Fields, floors, and mats should be maintained. For example, a slippery gym floor has caused more than one injury to the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament in the knee) and severe ankle sprain.
Safety rules should be developed and enforced. Adult supervision should be present for every practice and game. There should be no distractions on the field or bench including iPods, cell phones, food, animals, parents, friends, or other interferences.