Kids sport team in a huddle

There are plenty of good reasons to support your kids’ desire to play sports. It encourages physical activity, teaches new skills, helps them make new friends, and provides the opportunity to work as a team. Still, even though most kids who participate in sports do so without injury, there are health and safety concerns to be aware of, says Natasha Burgert, M.D., a Kansas City pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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Sports and other recreational activities account for an estimated 3.2 million emergency room visits each year for children 5 to 14 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

And it doesn’t matter whether your child is just starting peewee soccer or playing on a seriously competitive team—both can face some risks. “Bigger kids have more mass, which means they can exert more force, and that can result in more injury,” says Burgert. “But little kids tend to incur injuries due to lack of experience or reckless play.”

Being aware of these five common potential hazards and taking steps to prevent them will help your child have a safe, healthy season. 

Dehydration

Playing a fall sport can mean starting practices (and even games) when the weather still feels a lot like summer. High temperatures and humidity mean more sweating—which requires more hydration. “Good hydration all day—not just during practice or a game—is important for maintaining proper fluid and electrolyte balance,” says Burgert.

As a general rule, she recommends drinking small amounts frequently throughout the day. About 15 minutes before a game or practice, a child should drink about 12 to 16 ounces, then another 6 to 8 ounces for every 15 minutes of intense play. For the majority of active kids, plain water is the best choice. “Sports drinks that contain electrolytes aren’t necessary unless someone is playing vigorously for over an hour straight,” Burgert says. Most also contain a lot of added sugars kids don’t need (for example, a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade packs 34 grams of sugar).

Sunburn

It’s true that the sun’s UV rays are strongest in the summer and diminish as we move into the fall months. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to skip the sunscreen during games and practices. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using an SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum, water/sweat-resistant sunscreen on all exposed skin, no matter the season. For long workouts, reapply after 2 hours or sweating excessively. And don’t forget areas like the ears and the back of the neck—they are often not covered by sports helmets or caps. 

Concussions

There’s no doubt that concussions are a serious concern for young athletes, and, according to a study published in the journal BMC Emergency Medicine, nearly two-fifths of all sports-related head trauma occurs in children 12 to 17 years old.

“Football is the number one sport in which we see concussions and number two is girls soccer,” says Richard So, M.D., a pediatric sports medicine doctor at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “But I see them in a variety of other sports too, including volleyball and cheerleading.”

It’s important for parents (and coaches), he says, not to underestimate a potential head injury. “If your child is experiencing several symptoms of concussion—such as headache, mental fogginess, fatigue or vision problems—they need to come out of the game and be evaluated by a doctor,” So says. “The developing brain needs time to heal, and a second impact before a concussion is fully healed can cause serious damage or even be fatal.”

As far as preventing concussions, the key is learning how to play more safely. “Prevention comes from coaching,” he says. “The coaches need to teach proper rules, proper technique and the use of proper safety equipment.” Make sure your child has a properly fitted helmet and other protective gear and see that the coach is not allowing dangerous practices—such as letting kids use their heads or helmets to make contact with other players. 

Overtraining Injuries

Long hours of practice and lots of repetitive movement can lead to overuse injuries (such as shin splints or shoulder pain). In fact, half of all sports medicine injuries in children and teens are from overuse, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Training too intensely—especially after a summer of not playing the sport—combined with too little rest time between workouts can stress bones, muscles, ligaments, or tendons. “A smart coach will help athletes ease into training and mix up workouts to avoid too many repetitive motions,” says Burgert. And since a competitive—or just super-excited—kid may want to play through the pain, parents should pay attention to signs of overuse injuries. Symptoms like redness or swelling of a joint, muscle soreness that lasts more than a day or two, or pain that interferes with playing should be brought to the attention of the coach, trainer, or your child’s pediatrician. 

Anxiety

Playing a sport is fun, but being part of a team in a competitive environment can come with a lot of pressure. As a parent, you can help set expectations by praising your child’s effort and accomplishments, instead of focusing only on winning or turning in a perfect performance. If your kid’s coach puts too much pressure on athletes, talk to him or her—and, if need be, seek another team. For calming normal, pre-game jitters, Burgert suggests using meditation and visualization techniques to help the brain focus on the actions the body needs to perform. This can be as simple as suggesting your child take a few minutes to sit quietly and form a mental image of the course she’s about to race or imagine herself running down the soccer field and kicking the ball into the goal.