Injuries plague many young athletes, but when you’re as competitive and passionate about sports as Drew Ward, you sometimes weigh the physical pain against the “pain” of not being in the game.
Ward, 13, is an Oconee County Middle School student who plays football and soccer, but his favorite sport is basketball. He hones his skills weekly at the Athens YMCA, where he participates in the Carlos Strong Developmental League (CSDL), a basketball organization geared toward helping young players attain college scholarships.
Although Ward is an immensely talented athlete, his short career has been riddled with injuries. The most devastating was an ankle fracture from a football game in 2014, which left him sidelined for almost three months.
“If you’re playing sports, it’s hard to watch [how you treat an injured ankle], but you’ve just got to stay off of it,” Ward says. “If you try to come back too fast, it’s going to hurt you more in the longer run.”
Although Ward has healed and is back on the court and field today, he continues to fight the lingering effects of his injury and never quite stops thinking about his ankle.
“It hurts when I start running — for a long time. I started wearing braces and just run through it and try to not land on it with all my weight,” he says.
Ward’s basketball coach, Carlos Strong, who runs CSDL, says one of his priorities is helping parents understand the health and safety concerns of young athletes like Ward. Strong, who played basketball at the University of Georgia, in the NBA and internationally, trains more than 400 boys and girls in northeast Georgia.
Whether they are second-graders or high school seniors bound for college hoops, all the young athletes want to refine their basketball skills. And nobody wants to be benched with an injury.
“They have to pay attention to their bodies more, and parents have to listen to the kids when they tell them something hurts,” Strong says. “I talk to kids about this all the time: Listen to your body. If something hurts, there’s a reason why. Your body is telling you something.”
Wear and tear on joints
Although football-related head injuries and broken bones get the bulk of attention, the most common sports injuries for adolescents come from overuse, such as strains, sprains and stress fractures. Strong said he sees five to 10 sprains or strains a month.
A concussion, because it involves trauma to the brain, is always a high-priority concern.
With a concussion, rest is especially important, says Dr. Mike Nelson, who’s a youth coach as well as a physician. He’s trained in both internal medicine and pediatrics, and he practices in Athens.
“The two-week period after a concussion is the highest risk time to re-concuss, and so a lot of the protocols utilize a two-week recovery time,” Nelson says. “The brain is still healing from the initial concussion, and so the threshold for a second concussion is lower.”
Proper warm-up, stretching and conditioning are important factors in injury prevention. While young athletes may be tempted to incorporate weightlifting into their training regimen, they should hold off on heavy weights until late high school, Nelson says.
“I encourage the kids, if they are to weightlift, to use lighter weights and really work on making sure they have good form and try to help them understand that a lot of their muscle mass will come after their vertical growth,” says Nelson, who has coached his three sons — ages 8, 13 and 15 — in soccer, basketball and Little League Baseball.
Proper hydration and not getting overheated are also essential for safety.
“They may not think they need water, but they need it,” Strong says. A sports drink “replenishes you and all that, but you still need some type of water, and that’s what I tell them all the time: Hydrate yourself.”
Vigilance is vital
Nelson says a less obvious health rule is to pay attention and listen to your coach.
“The ‘listen to coach’ part is really important, especially in certain sports, like baseball for instance,” he says. “If you don’t listen to coach, you can have kids swinging bats all over the place, hitting other kids or throwing balls in all directions.”
Parents should be aware that pushing young athletes through injuries or physical and mental exhaustion could have a major impact on their child’s health and well-being, Strong says. Children may develop chronic health problems due to injuries or stop enjoying athletics.
“The people that they want to make happy and proud the most are the parents,” he says. “A lot of times, parents just keep pushing and pushing kids, and it makes it tough on them, and it makes my job tough.”
Nelson says that as a coach and a parent, he’s always careful to make sure the kids are enjoying what they’re playing, and as a pediatrician he encourages all children to get up and move instead of sprawling on the couch.
“We’re in a time period where kids have lots of other options to not be active — such as TV, video games, computers, iPads, movies — and it’s a struggle for us as pediatricians to encourage outdoor activity,” Nelson says. Organized sports, safely played, are a great avenue for this, he adds.
Coach Strong’s Top Five Tips:
1. Know your kid’s body.
2. Treat and take injuries seriously.
3. Encourage hydration.
4. Stretch and warm up properly.
5. Use the proper equipment.
Elizabeth Fite graduated from Auburn University in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English literature, and she is currently pursing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia. Formerly, she was a reporter for the Auburn Plainsman in Auburn, Alabama, and the Aiken Standard in Aiken, South Carolina.