How To Prevent Sports Injuries in Kids

There are ways parents can help young athletes prevent painful sports injuries. Here's expert advice as featured in the new book When Children Feel Pain.

Happy young girls talking a break from gymnastics training in a locker room
Photo: STUDIO TAURUS/Stocksy

It was a hot and humid September day in Massachusetts when Hannah and hundreds of other cross-country runners from high schools around New England gathered to compete in a 5K race. Jill and her husband, Matt, were standing near the finish line waiting for Hannah to emerge from the wooded trail. But first, they watched the varsity boys come through—a pack of bodies speeding over the finish line.

"The boys were running so fast that they were running into each other," Jill recalls. "They had really strong volunteers, parents, and coaches standing there at the finish line to grab the kids when they came through to slow them down and hold them up—because a lot of them would fall down after they'd exerted every ounce of their energy."

Hannah usually didn't show signs of distress, but on this day, with temperatures in the 90s, she reached a breaking point. "When Hannah came over the line, she had really pushed it, and she blacked out and fainted," says Jill. "My friend was working the finish line and she literally caught Hannah mid-fall and brought her over to the medical tent."

Hannah quickly regained consciousness in the tent, but her parents were alarmed by what they saw happening around them. "There were girls throwing up and crying, and others were sitting there with ice packs and wet towels on their heads," remembers Jill.

"My husband and I were watching this, and he looked at me and said, 'I don't want her to run anymore. That's it. I think we should forbid it.' So many of these girls were running through injuries and, as a parent, my husband and I often felt like it wasn't worth it, and we were concerned about Hannah's long-term health." As they learned, striking a balance between healthy competition, overexertion, and potential injuries can be highly problematic for parents and young athletes.

Fortunately, with appropriate training techniques, adequate time off, and the guidance of knowledgeable adults, young athletes can up their chances of preventing painful sports injuries and lower their chances of developing chronic problems with pain. To keep a young athlete strong, happy, and healthy (both mentally and physically), talk with potential coaches about their approach and keep in mind these recommendations from experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Help Your Child Adopt a Healthy Mindset

In many sports, children are mentally conditioned to brush off pain and discomfort to their detriment. "There is the idea that you must sacrifice your body and your brain for the overall greater good of the team," says Dawson Dicks, a football coach in the Boston area who has worked with high school and college teams. He acknowledges that this mentality can be taken too far. Whether your child's sport is football, track, soccer, or volleyball, your basic advice should be the same: "Listen to your body. Take time to recover when you're hurt." The longer a child plays injured, the more likely it is that chronic problems will develop.

Make Prevention a Priority

Fewer injuries mean fewer opportunities for nervous system function to go haywire. But keep in mind that prevention doesn't just mean physical stretching and strength training. It also means helping children reduce stress and get enough sleep. We know that both mental well-being and adequate rest have the potential to protect children from developing persistent pain—and that many of the kids and parents driven to excessive athletic participation also feel enormous pressure to excel at academics and in other areas. When this competitive environment costs kids sleep, it puts both their physical and mental health at risk.

Delay Specialization in Sports

Delaying sports specialization until at least age 15 (better yet, 16) can minimize stress on your child's growing body and decrease the likelihood of overuse injuries. Encouraging a kid to play a variety of sports throughout the year helps to strengthen different muscles and reduces the chances of burning out on just one activity.

Encourage Time Off

Make sure young athletes take two days off from their sport every week throughout the season to lower the likelihood of overuse injuries. This doesn't mean kids must be inactive on their days off. They can, for instance, go swimming on their days away from the softball field.

Also, encourage kids to take time away from their main sport for at least three months during the year, in installments of one month. During that time, kids should try other physical activities, or stay active by playing outside and having fun with friends.

Check In With Your Child Regularly

Playing sports can be a boon for a child's mental well-being. It can foster discipline, improved self-esteem, goal-setting abilities, and leadership skills. It can also teach kids about the importance and the joy of working with a team. But pressure to excel or win, if it becomes too intense, can chip away at the psychological benefits of sports participation. That's why parents and coaches would be wise to ask children periodically if they're still feeling motivated and enjoying their sport. Just as there is a need to have a healthy balance between physical training and periods of rest, it's important for kids to have a healthy balance between sports competition and playing for fun.

Adapted from WHEN CHILDREN FEEL PAIN: FROM EVERYDAY ACHES TO CHRONIC CONDITIONS by Rachel Rabkin Peachman and Anna C. Wilson, published by Harvard University Press.

Copyright © 2022 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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