Rest, nutrition and hydration are the building blocks of the health of all athletes. But young athletes need even more.
Proper care for young athletes actually begins with the coach, according to David M. Smith, MD, physician at The University of Kansas Health System Sports Medicine and Performance Center.
"It's so important for coaches to have appropriate, up-to-date training," he says. "Some may coach their players the way they were coached in high school, which isn't necessarily safe or correct for today's athletes. They also need to have the proper background and certification for the sport they're coaching, because they need to understand the injuries their players may sustain."
Dr. Smith also emphasizes that parents play an important role in keeping a young athlete healthy. He offered a variety of ways for parents to guide their children.
- Encourage your child to do the training the coach suggests. For example, proper off-season strength training – that may be specific to certain sports – can really help enhance performance during games.
- Persuade them to practice, but don't nag. Even though young athletes get excited about playing a game, they're usually less enthusiastic to practice. Dr. Smith notes that practice is what prepares them for the stress their body experiences during a game.
- Make sure your child is enjoying the sport. If your child seems to dread practice or is anxious about playing, find out why.
- Resist putting undue pressure on your child. It's tempting to urge your kids to engage in activities you were involved in or excelled at, but it's not wise to pick a sport for them. Remember, many kids burn out early as a result of unrealistic expectations placed on them by others.
- Praise your child. Developing discipline is one of the major goals of athletics. Teach your child to set a goal and work toward it. But if it isn't accomplished, don't allow feelings of failure. Help your child understand that putting forth the effort, showing up for practice and doing their best is the ultimate goal – and the ultimate success.
- Don't expect your child to play every sport. "How many professional athletes do you see playing multiple sports? Not very many!" says Dr. Smith. Most young athletes can't do it all. Without an off-season to prepare and recover, athletes are at a higher risk for injuries, burnout and unnecessary stress.
Recognizing when a young athlete is struggling is also important to prevent additional injuries. Dr. Smith suggests a few more tips to keep in mind.
- Expect some general achiness or soreness after practice begins.
- Be on the lookout for localized pain, as it may be related to injury.
- Some kids think they should be tough and not admit pain. So encourage your athlete to let people know they're in pain.
- Pay attention to physical symptoms, such as limping or carrying an arm. If your child normally walks or lifts something in a certain way, notice if their method changes suddenly. It could be a sign of an injury.
- Ask your child how things are going if they seem emotionally stressed or worked up over a sport. Being overly anxious prior to practice or games may indicate that your child is not enjoying the activity and wants to quit.