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Blown ACLs. Dislocated shoulders. Multiple ankle sprains. Concussions with memory loss. Sports can take their toll on kids before they even reach the high school level.
“It’s really an epidemic at this point,” says Dr. Scott Sigman, who specializes in sports medicine and is an orthopedic surgeon and the team physician for UMass Lowell hockey. “Each kid is individual, each sport is individual, but certain sports are more notorious for pushing kids. Take gymnastics, for example. You look at any one of these Olympic athletes, and they’ve got a medical file 3 inches thick.”
Although sports are physical, there are more obstacles to overcome than bodily ones. Shannon Miller knows the mental strain of an elite sport like Olympic gymnastics. She nabbed seven Olympic medals in 1992 and 1996, and remains the most decorated gymnast in American history. While she may have been able to tackle pressure, she wasn’t immune to it.
“I wanted to represent my club and later my country in the best way possible,” says Miller, who started gymnastics at age 5. “I’m also a type-A personality. I enjoy striving for perfection, and it bothers me when I fall short.” She didn’t always make the podium, or even nail her practice routines. “I would be so upset about falling on a skill that I couldn’t even listen to corrections. I would just cry.”
Sigman says sports can be especially tough on younger kids, who are just starting out. "We, as parents, oftentimes forget about limits, and the seasons never end. It rolls from one sport to the next sport to the next sport, and kids are not little people. They’re not little adults. They need time to rest.”
Let kids unwind, and make sure the game they love does not become their entire existence. “I know there are T-shirts out there that say ‘Gymnastics is Life,’” Miller says. “But it really isn’t.”
When sports move from recess fun to more heated competition, it’s essential to prepare a growing body to handle the physical stress.
“The CDC talks about 2 million high school sports-related injuries per year, and they feel about 50 percent of those are preventable,” says Sigman. “We’re trying to get more kids to learn how to jump, how to cut, how to run, to try and prevent these injuries.”
Instead of simply limbering up, Sigman says, it’s important to make a connection between mind and body. He works with the Sports Injury Prevention Program on FIFA 11+, a warm-up routine that aims to teach kids involved in youth soccer how to prepare for cutting, running and jumping. He says the concept is relevant for every sport, though.
Veteran soccer player Kristine Lilly, who also works with FIFA 11+, credits agility exercises for the longevity of her career—she played on Team USA for 23 years, and earned three Olympic medals—and encourages kids to learn them. “I’ve been really lucky throughout my career and haven’t had any major injuries to keep me out,” she says. “I think [the exercises] definitely played a part in my health. Not that I have a magic recipe, but I try to take care of my body and stay fit.”
Another caveat with sports is this: Everyone has a different goal in mind. Coaches want to win, players want to play, and you want your child to have fun. Your job, as a parent, is to be the advocate, Sigman says. “Remember there’s always a conflict of interest. The coach wants their star athletes out on the field, and I think as a parent, you can get caught up in that, as well. You have to ultimately remember you’re caring for your child, and your child’s best interest should always be at the forefront.”
When your child takes a major hit or fall, seek medical attention, Sigman says. “If you have a child who is really having significant pain or discomfort, or gross swelling to an extremity, or [they are] refusing to use a limb, then that’s something you don’t want to wait on. You get the mother who comes in at three weeks with a kid, you do an X-ray and the fracture’s already healing, and she’ll look at you like, ‘Oh my gosh, what was I thinking!’”
The most important injury to watch out for is a knock to the head. “I’m the team physician for UMass Lowell, so I do spend a lot of time at the hockey rinks,” says Sigman. “Concussions, especially at the pediatric population, have to be taken in a grossly serious manner. ... If there’s any incidence whatsoever of memory loss, blurred or double vision, any kind of amnesia ... they need to be evaluated by a pediatrician. If they feel there’s more evaluation required, then they need to see a neurologist.”
Also, check and see if your child’s school or pediatrician can do a baseline neurological evaluation at the start of the season. It will help make sure, if they do suffer a bad blow, that they are healthy before playing again. “As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to concussions, the amount of time that you have symptoms is the amount of time that you need to be out of sports," Sigman says.
Balance and Benefits
Although there are risks to athletics, the lessons learned and physical benefits are huge. “Physical activity helps with coordination, flexibility, balance and body awareness. With sports we learn how to set goals and work hard to achieve them. We learn what it means to be part of a team," Miller says.
Lilly and Miller are both mothers now. Lilly's advice to her daughters—ages 4 and 1—is to keep it light. “I will tell my kids to have fun and work hard. If you do something, whether it’s sports or your school work, a musical instrument, dancing ... you have to work hard if you want to be better. And I think if kids are involved in something, they do want to get better. If they put the time in, that will make the difference.”
Miller’s advice to her 3-year-old son is to give it your all. “Never set limits on what you can achieve. If you have the determination and work ethic, you can do anything you set your mind to. And set goals. You have to set long-term goals, but make sure you have a goal to achieve each day when you wake up."