Each year more than 3.5 million children suffer sports injuries severe enough to require medical attention, according to Safe Kids USA. “Youth sports injuries—both overuse and traumatic—are rising, and that’s for good and bad reasons,” says Dr. David Geier, medical director of the Sports Medicine Program at the Medical University of South Carolina. The good reason? More kids are playing sports than ever before. The bad? Many kids are training too hard, too young, or experiencing traumatic injuries from hard hits and falls. We spoke to Geier; Larry Cooper, chair of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Secondary School Committee; and Dr. Matthew Matava, co-chief of Sports Medicine at the University of Washington in St. Louis, to learn which team sports pose the greatest risk of traumatic injury for kids.
The Sport: Football
“Football dominates the number-one injury sport in just about every study,” says Geier. “When you have a sport that involves contact and collision, the rate of traumatic injury is naturally going to be higher.” In a study in the journal Pediatrics, football had the highest concussion rate in children and adolescents. Football players also have a higher chance of knee and ankle injuries due to the playing surfaces and cutting motions, according to the nonprofit STOP Sports Injuries (SSI).
Play it safe: “Instead of glorifying violent hits, we need to emphasize completed passes and proper technique, such as tackling below the shoulders,” Geier says. Cooper agrees. “It’s important to teach kids proper technique at a young age—how to absorb and deliver a blow,” he says. And though equipment like well-fitting helmets and mouth guards won’t rule out injuries, they can help. “If a player takes a hit to the jaw, the mouth guard can prevent reverberation into the brain,” says Matava.
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The Sport: Soccer
Soccer, specifically girls’ soccer, came in second in the Pediatrics concussion study. “There is conflicting data about whether heading the ball can cause long-term brain damage,” Geier says. “But traumatic blows can result from colliding with another player in the air, a hard fall or hitting the head on a goalpost.” Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are also more common in female players, Geier says. And because of the amount of running per game, soccer players are also at risk for overuse injuries of the leg, like shin splints and stress fractures.
Play it safe: Learning proper technique for moves like sliding and heading the ball at a young age is important to prevent leg and head injuries, says Cooper. To lower the chance of ACL tears, female athletes should regularly practice prevention exercises such as jumping and landing with knees bent, says Geier. To prevent overuse injuries, encourage your child to get adequate rest and play different sports throughout the year.
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The Sport: Lacrosse
Lacrosse ranked third on Pediatrics’ concussion list. According to SSI, “Head and face injury, including concussion, are less frequent but still an important issue for the game.” In boys’ play, concussions are most commonly related to collisions with another player or the ground. For girls, unintentional stick or ball contact accounts for most concussions.
Play it safe: Proper equipment including gloves, pads and eye protection is a must. Proper stick and ball-handling technique is equally important for safe play. Athletes should be discouraged from making unprotected hits and taught to value skill and finesse over contact.
The Sport: Wrestling
Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports and has one of the highest rates of concussions for kids. “Most concussions result from contact with another opponent rather than with the mat,” Cooper says. Other common wrestling injuries include cauliflower ear (caused by severe bruising of the ear) and knee and shoulder injuries. Medial collateral ligament (MCL) or lateral collateral ligament (LCL) injuries to the knee can result when the leg is twisted outward.
Play it safe: Quality equipment, including mats, headgear and pads, is essential, as is proper coaching of technique and discipline. Wrestlers—and all athletes—can benefit from a well-planned strength and conditioning regimen.
The Sport: Cheerleading
“Cheerleading’s large number of injuries surprises people,” says Geier. “Some people still picture chanting on the sidelines, but in reality, cheerleaders are doing complex, athletic tumbling passes and aerial stunts.” Though less frequent than other sports, cheerleading injuries tend to be more severe, comprising more than half of the catastrophic injuries in female athletes, according to SSI. Most cheerleading injuries affect the wrists, shoulders, ankles, head and neck.
Play it safe: Geier commends the limits that have been placed on stunts to increase the safety of the sport. “If you really adhere to the rules, like the height of the basket toss, the use of spotters and practicing on mats, the sport can be done relatively safely,” he says. “One of the biggest things is awareness that cheerleaders are athletes and need proper training conditions.”