My 6-year-old wants to play sports. Is he too young and how do I make sure he stays safe when playing a sport?
Before school age, children should stay physically active and healthy through unstructured "free play." For preschool-aged children, "sports" classes that emphasize fun are a great way to introduce athletics without competition. Most older children are ready for organized team sports when they are about 6 years of age. This is when they can follow directions and understand the concept of teamwork.
Keep in mind that all children are unique individuals. They grow and mature at different rates. Age, weight, and size shouldn't be the only measures used to decide if your child is ready to play a sport. Emotional development is also important. Children shouldn't be pushed into a sport or be placed in a competition they are not physically or emotionally ready to handle. Consider allowing your child to participate only if his interest is strong and you feel he can handle it. Remember, most children play sports to have fun.
Risks of injury in sports
All sports have a risk of injury; some more than others. In general, the more contact in a sport, the greater the risk of injury.
Concussions occur after an injury to the head or neck. They are most likely caused by body-to-body contact, body-to-object (like a ball) contact, or body-to-ground contact.
Most sports injuries involve the soft tissues of the body, not the bones. Only about 5% of sports injuries involve broken bones. However, the areas where bones grow in children are at more risk of injury during the rapid growth phase of puberty.
The main types of sports injuries are sprains (injuries to ligaments) and strains (injuries to muscles). Many injuries are caused by overuse. Overuse is when a child overdoes it (by pitching too many innings, for example). This places stress on the tendons, joints, bones, and muscles and can cause damage.
How to reduce risks
Wear the right gear. Appropriate protective equipment may include pads (neck, shoulder, elbow, chest, knee, shin), helmets, mouthpieces, face guards, protective cups, and eyewear.
Increase flexibility. Stretching exercises before and after games can help increase flexibility of muscles and tendons used in play.
Strengthen muscles. Conditioning exercises during practice and before games can help strengthen muscles used in play.
Use the proper technique throughout the season of play.
Take breaks. Rest periods are important during practice and games to reduce the risk of overuse injuries. During the year, a 2-month break from a specific sport is recommended to prevent overuse injuries.
Play safe. There should be strict rules against headfirst sliding (in baseball and softball), spearing (in football), and body checking (in ice hockey) to prevent serious head and spine injuries.
Stop the workout if there is pain.
Prevent heat injury or illness. Rules for safe exercise in the heat include the following:
Drink plenty of proper fluids before, during, and after exercise or play.
Allow athletes to gradually adjust to exercising in hot, humid weather by increasing activities slowly over the first 2 weeks of practice.
- Decrease or stop practices or competitions during periods when the combination of excessive heat and humidity approaches dangerous levels.
- Wear lightweight clothing.
- Stop playing if lightning is detected within a 6-mile radius (follow the "5 second per mile" rule).
- Play on safe fields. Inspect fields before practices and games. Clear all debris and repair holes and uneven surfaces.
It's also important to make sure your child has a complete physical exam by your pediatrician before participating in any sport. Most organized sports teams require an exam before a child can play. These exams are not designed to stop children from participating, but to make sure they are in good health and can safely play the game.