Children's Wellness Guide

Sports Safety for Adolescents

Playing sports is a great opportunity for a teen to get regular exercise, meet other teens and learn teamwork. It is also a wonderful way for a teen to "fit in" and do well at something.

However, every teen should choose a sport not only because it interests him, but also because it is right for his body size. There is more to sports than just playing; it also is important to know how to play safely, since injuries from sports and recreational activities are common with athletes of all ages. In fact, most kids will have some type of injury during their high school athletic experiences. Fortunately, many injuries can be avoided, so make sure your teen takes the following steps to stay safe while playing sports.

Get the right gear.

Make sure your teen has the proper equipment for the sport he is playing. This includes safety gear such as kneepads, goggles, wrist pads, shin guards, mouth guards, helmets, elbow pads, ankle supports, waist supports, shoulder pads and proper footwear. If you are not sure what equipment your teen needs, check with the gym teacher or coach. Make sure all equipment fits correctly as well. Again, your teen can check with the coach to make sure that the equipment fits properly. Wearing the right equipment with the proper fit dramatically decreases the chance your teen will get hurt.

Warm up before playing.

To help prevent injury, your teen needs to warm up and stretch before each and every practice session or game. Muscles that have not been used in a while can be stiff and tend to be injured more easily. Your teen should first get his blood pumping and warm up his muscles by doing some light aerobic exercise, such as jogging, jumping jacks or brisk walking, for five to 10 minutes. Then he should spend a few minutes more stretching all of his muscles. Even if your teen does not belong to a team and simply exercises on his own, regular warm-ups and stretching should be part of his exercise routine.

Start off slowly.

If your teen is playing a sport for the first time, make sure that he does not overdo it. Injuries commonly happen when teens play a sport for the first time and push themselves too hard, too fast. Your teen needs to start slowly and build a training program that is appropriate for his age and level of development. His coach can help you with this.

Take time off for injuries.

Even if your teen follows the above advice, injuries sometimes do happen. If your teen is injured, it is critical that he takes time off to allow that injury to heal. Playing too soon increases the chance for re-injury. Remind your teen that it is better to take a few weeks off from a sport than to be out for an entire season or possibly never play again. Get advice from his doctor or team trainer on when your teen can return to the sport. Your teen should not let anyone, including friends or the coach, pressure him into playing before his body is fully healed.

Play it safe on and off the field.

It can be even more important for your teen to follow these rules when he is playing informally, and not in an organized sport. Most organized sports are just that - organized. The coaches usually make sure players have the proper equipment, are warming-up and stretching, and are taking the appropriate time off after an injury. This is not true when your teen is playing basketball with friends or lifting weights at the gym. Under all circumstances, make sure that your teen uses the proper equipment, warms up, stretches and gets the proper rest after injuries. Set a good example for him and make sure you do the same before you play.

Many adolescents also like to test the limits of their physical abilities by engaging in risky activities. For example, instead of inline skating along a flat, well-paved road, they want to inline skate down steep hills and do jumps off curbs. Risky behaviors such as these are more likely to lead to injuries. While you cannot control what your teen does at all times, you can let him know that he is increasing his risk of injury when he does these things. Insist that he wear the right protective equipment during any high-risk activities.

Drugs won't speed up development.

Teens develop at different rates and some boys are not fully developed until the end of high school. Their muscles may not be as large and they may be shorter than other boys the same age. This can make them feel uncomfortable and they may be interested in ways to speed up the development process or make their bodies "bigger." Your teen may hear about different substances marketed to athletes that claim to boost athletic performance, including illegal substances (for example, steroids and growth hormone) and nutritional supplements (for example, creatine and protein drinks). None of these substances have been proven safe for teens and many have dangerous side effects. Furthermore, they are expensive and usually do not work that well, if at all.

Don't drink alcohol or take drugs.

Make sure you also talk with your teen about the dangers of playing sports while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Alcohol, even one drink, and other drugs affect reflexes, coordination and judgment, and increase the risk of serious injury. Your teen should not participate in sports, especially those that are fast moving, such as bicycling, inline skating, skiing or skate boarding, if he has been drinking or using other drugs. He should also never swim while drinking alcohol or using other drugs. This could result in drowning or death.

Being involved in sports is a wonderful activity for teens. It is an excellent source of regular exercise, and allows them the opportunity to make friends, feel part of a group, and learn about teamwork. You certainly should encourage your teen to participate in sports if he shows even the slightest interest. However, it is important for you to discuss with your teen how to play sports safely. Make sure he has the proper equipment, warms up and stretches before practices and games, and takes time off after an injury. Playing it safe will enable your teen to have continued fun playing sports for years to come.

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