Total youth sports injuries are down for children ages 5-14, yet football injuries for that age group are up—22.8 percent in the last 10 years, according to the American Academy of Orthopaeidc Surgeons. About 10 percent of players suffer an injury and of those, 36 percent require some recovery time or treatment.
Here are 10 tips to prevent injuries. Parents, coaches, and players should adhere to these tips, which apply to youth football players of all ages.
1. Think Safe
The old culture of playing through pain in youth sports is over. Parents and coaches should stress that if a player feels hurt he should remove himself from the game until he is further evaluated. Injuries can be made much worse by continuing to play through the pain. It’s only a game, think safe, play safe.
2. Match Players
Children under age 10 should not play tackle football. At this age, children are experiencing rapid growth spurts, and are learning to use their new size and strength. Their bones have open growth plates, which can be susceptible to injury.
It is more important to teach football technique and rules at this age rather than tackling. Once children advance to tackle football it is important that youth teams be matched by size and skill levels, not necessarily by age or grade level. Children develop at different rates, and children of the same age can have huge variations in height and weight.
3. Know the Game
Athletes should understand the rules of football-related to injury prevention and should master the proper execution of the fundamental football skills, particularly blocking and tackling, the basic contact aspects of the game. Practice is the best time to teach proper tackling and blocking techniques because it is a controlled environment.
4. Be in Shape
Children should not start conditioning at the time of their first football practice. They should maintain a general exercise/fitness program year-round, which can help prevent childhood obesity and also keep them prepared for sports.
Conditioning programs should promote anaerobic and cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, muscle strength and range of motion, power, and endurance. Make sure to include neck strengthening. Six weeks before the season they can ramp up the intensity to prepare for the vigors of their sport.
5. Heads Up
Concussions are getting a lot of attention, which is appropriate due to the serious nature of the injury and potential for long-lasting effects. Greater awareness and changing attitudes toward treatment have helped with timely diagnosis and management of concussions when they occur. However, proper technique and teaching is an important measure for prevention.
Play head’s up football! To prevent spine and head injuries, contact should always be made with the head up and not with the top of the head. Athletes should be encouraged to see what they are hitting. Never make initial contact with the helmet or facemask. Helmet-to-helmet contact causes a large number of concussions. The head is key to preventing all types of injuries by using it as a brain that thinks first before it acts.
The good news is that less than 4 percent of youth players suffer a concussion, but that’s still a lot of concussions. Players aged 11-12 are three times more likely to get a concussion than players aged 8-10. About 95 percent of youth football concussions happen to skill position players—quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, linebackers.
And it’s not only a big jarring hit that causes a concussion. The smaller but repetitive hits, the hits that cause neck and head rotation, and the jarring of getting hit and stopping short while running can all cause concussions.
Anyone involved in youth sports should be aware of the signs and symptoms, be vigilant and know the steps for initial management of a concussed player. If there is any concern for a concussion, a child should be immediately removed from activity until evaluated by a medical professional.
6. Good Coaching
Youth teams are often coached by a well-meaning but not well-informed parent without access to athletic trainers or other medical personnel. Coaches should be certified in first aid and CPR and should attend state-approved in-service training on coaching football, as well as approved training for concussions. The coach should have a thorough mastery of the rules of football and instill an attitude of safe play, instructing players on safe techniques. Parents should monitor to make sure the coach is doing these things.
7. Cut Back on Contusions
A bruise is the most common injury, at 35 percent of all injuries suffered by youth football players. This is tough to prevent in a contact sport, but adequate padding helps for the chest/ribs, forearms, elbows and thighs. Treating deep muscle bruises early with ice, and if necessary rest, can hasten healing and help avoid re-injury.
8. Ligament Stress
Ligament injuries are the second most common in youth football, and many of those sprains, strains, and tears occur to the knee. A hit can do it, but most likely a player inadvertently does it to himself.
A good preseason strengthening program focused on the hip muscles and core can help create a stable base of support and minimize noncontact ligament injuries. Also, if an athlete has had prior injuries, adequate re-strengthening—especially prior to the start of the season—can assure that the joint is strong and can tolerate the stress of sports.
Players should warm up with stretching and agility exercises for 15 minutes prior to practice or a game. This helps prepare the ligaments and muscles for the stresses ahead so they can better take the twists, hits and odd positions every player winds up in. And warm up for 5 minutes when you’ve been out for a while or after halftime. Muscle strains are very common on the sidelines, and keeping the muscles warm and flexible can help to avoid these.
10. Proper Hydration
Water is essential to safeguard the health of the player by preventing dehydration that can cause heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Dehydration also affects performance and can cause muscle cramping.
Athletes should drink at least 16 to 20 ounces of fluid one to two hours before an outdoor activity. Then they should consume 6 to 12 ounces of fluid every 10 to 15 minutes that they are exercising. After activity replace what you have lost and drink at least another 16 to 24 ounces.
Water is usually adequate but for intense exercise lasting more than an hour, a sports drink can be used to replace carbohydrates and electrolytes. It is essential for coaches to allow their players time to adequately hydrate.