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Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Sports

DiPaola In ContentMatthew DiPaola, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon and shoulder and elbow specialist with Atrium Medical Center in Middletown.

Q. My teenagers are playing high school sports. What kind of training should they be getting to avoid injuries? How else can I help them stay healthy? Why should my child get a sports physical?

A. Many children and teens participate in organized sports these days. Because their bodies are growing, their health should be the number one priority for coaches and parents. Injuries certainly can occur due to sports activity, so an injury prevention program should be part of any adolescent athlete’s training regimen. An awareness of the special requirements of young athletes can better prepare them for the competitive pressures and physical injuries that can come with increased sports activity.

Let's start with some basics. There are some universal principles that hold true across all sports:

1. Athletes should always stay well hydrated. We've had a particularly warm summer this year.  Taking frequent water breaks during practice and getting plenty of fluid throughout the day is extraordinarily important.  Parents should ask coaches about scheduled fluid breaks and keep close tabs on this in their young athletes. 

2. Rest. While it’s recommended that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep per night, it’s especially important for young athletes to get proper sleep. Sleep helps the body recover sufficiently from vigorous exercise and should be a top priority. 

3. Proper nutrition. While nutritional supplementation may be somewhat controversial, eating a well-balanced diet is not. Young athletes need plenty of vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates for energy and protein for muscle recovery. All athletes should incorporate good nutrition into their daily routines. When the body is sweating in hot weather, basic elements such as the mineral potassium can be lost. Foods such as bananas are a good source for replenishing potassium.

4. Proper conditioning. Many sports injuries in young athletes, particularly elbow and knee injuries, are caused by excessive, repetitive stress on immature muscles and bone. Coaches should help protect young athletes through proper conditioning, prompt treatment of injuries and rehabilitation programs. Conditioning programs build physical fitness by improving muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and cardiorespiratory fitness.

5. A healthy attitude. Coaches as well as parents should create an atmosphere that fosters self-reliance, confidence, cooperation, trust and a positive self-image. Young athletes must learn to deal with success and defeat to keep events in the proper perspective. The promotion of a “win at all costs” ethic can have both short-term and long-term damaging effects on impressionable children and teens.

Sports physicals help you discover and deal with any health problems that might interfere with your child’s participation in a sport. They can uncover any rare, potentially life-threatening conditions, such as symptoms that show a risk of sudden cardiac arrest. They also can alert coaches, parents and trainers to special limitations, such as asthma, or old injuries, such as strains, that may be easily treated with rehab or medications.

Because each sport is different, specific training tips may vary based on the sport. For instance, research has shown that female athletes are more likely to incur ACL injuries in the knee. Some studies suggest that teenage girls can help lessen the chance of this type of injury by participating in a neuromuscular rehabilitation program. 

For throwing athletes, it is well known that monitoring pitch counts can decrease the risk for chronic shoulder and elbow injuries. Parents and coaches should keep an eye on this to help keep their kids healthy so they can enjoy a long career.

Standard ankle sprains also should be treated with a rehabilitation program focused on strengthening stabilizing muscles around the joint. 

One of the things that I think is key, but may not be emphasized enough, is that athletics for young adults should be fun. Finding a sport that suits the individual — one that is personally fulfilling — will do more for your child’s overall health in the long run because he or she will want to come back to it. If the sport is enjoyable, it may foster healthy habits for a lifetime — something that can pay huge dividends over the years.

This information is for educational purposes only. Please talk to your physician for advice in all matters related to your health.

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