According to a National Council of Youth Sports survey, more than 40 million young athletes ages 6 – 18 participate in organized sports. And while there are countless benefits to organized sports, there are also the inevitable injuries that come with the territory. I recently spoke with Ron M. Hillian, MS, of EXOS, Human Performance about tips to keep student-athletes as healthy as possible. Ron is the Assistant Program Manager for the Associate Wellness and Fitness Center at Independence Blue Cross and has the distinction of being an All-American sprinter, so he’s well-versed in the health and safety concerns for student-athletes.
6 Sports Safety Tips for Student-Athletes
- Ensure your child is medically cleared. Student-athletes should receive all required pre-sports evaluations/physicals, and ease back into workouts to build their endurance and strength. Physicals will ensure your child is physically able to play, and they also serve to spot any underlying medical conditions that could cause any issues.
- Prioritize mental health. These days, the pressure on young people is immense, and rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers is rising every year. You should make sure your child is psychologically ready for the sport or level of play and, more importantly, wants to play. According to Hillian, “Parents, coaches, and/or teammates should be aware of warning signs such as difficulty sleeping, concentrating, negative talk, self-doubt, or performing well in training practice but not in competition. These can be the result of an underlying issue that should not be ignored.” If your child does shows signs of mental distress, consult a mental health professional.
- Make sure your child has the proper protective equipment. The best defense against injury is proper, correct-fitting protective equipment: helmets, goggles, protective pads, mouth guards, etc. Of particular concern are concussions. As Hillian explained, “Concussions are very serious because it is a type of brain injury. If the brain is repeatedly traumatized over a long period of time, it can take longer to recover each time and possibly result in long-term effects. You and your child should know the signs of a concussion: blackouts, headaches, mood swings, memory loss, or difficulty problem solving. Concussions are hard to detect so becoming more knowledgeable can make a huge difference.” If you suspect your child suffered a concussion, seek medical assistance immediately and insist your child takes a break from their sport. The potential long-term effects of an untreated concussion are not worth it.
- Seek out accurate nutritional advice. Nutrition is a huge part of your student-athlete’s health and subsequent on-field performance. Although it’s important that athletes eat a balanced and healthy diet, according to Hillian, “It can be tricky to determine what that looks like because there is a lot of information (and misinformation) available about what to eat and what not to eat.” In addition, each athlete is going to have different needs. For example, a gymnast is going to have different nutritional needs from a linebacker. “The best route is to speak to a registered dietitian who can tailor nutritional advice to the student-athlete and not just make general recommendations,” says Hillian.
(Note: If you’re an IBX member, you may be covered for six free annual visits with a registered dietitian. Check to see if your plan covers nutrition counseling. To find a participating registered dietitian, primary care provider, or another network provider, Independence Blue Cross members can search our Provider Finder Tool or call 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY: 711).
- Be aware of dehydration and other heat-related illnesses. In many parts of the country, it remains hot in the early to mid-part of the fall season. Regardless of the season, “proper hydration is essential to athletic life.” According to Hillian, dehydration can cause “tiredness, dry mouth, and muscle cramping. As a result, an athlete may not perform to the best of their abilities.” He recommends monitoring hydration by urine color. “If your child’s urine is light yellow to clear, they are hydrated. If their urine is yellow or darker, this is an indicator that they are dehydrated.” Because athletes are at an increased risk for skin cancer, make sure your child always wears at least an SPF 30. You should also familiarize yourself with the warning signs of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
- Educate yourself on first aid/CPR. Make sure the person responsible for your child’s on-field care (coach, athletic trainer) is First Aid/CPR/AED-trained. You should consider getting trained yourself, if you aren’t already. In addition, it’s helpful to have access to an on-site defibrillator in the event of sudden cardiac arrest.
Although injuries can happen to the best of athletes, other factors can also lead to these injuries, including overtraining or not allowing enough recovery time. Hillian emphasizes that “it’s good for athletes to be passionate and dedicated to their sport,” but that they “also need to listen to their body.” Teach your child to pay attention to how they feel and what their body is telling them.
If you have further questions about student-athlete health and safety, you should first contact your child’s school athletic department. Additional resources include STOP Sports Injuries, National Athletic Trainers’ Association, National Council of Youth Sports, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.