FRIDAY, May 19, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Keeping kids safe when they play sports can mean many things to many parents -- buying the right equipment, making sure the child eats and rests well, even providing adequate sunscreen.
But medical experts say the most important injury-prevention step within a parent's power often goes overlooked or unnoticed: finding a knowledgeable coach.
"Parents should look at the philosophy of any program their child is going into," said Dr. Douglas McKeag, chairman of the Indiana University School of Medicine's Department of Family Medicine, and director of the university's Center for Sports Medicine. "That philosophy is one of the paramount things people should find out."
In the United States, about 30 million children and teens participate in some form of organized sports, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And each year more than 3.5 million injuries occur during youth sports. In fact, almost one-third of all injuries incurred in childhood are sports-related.
More than 775,000 children ages 14 and under are treated annually in hospital emergency rooms for sports-related injuries. Most of the injuries occur due to falls, being struck by an object, collisions, and overexertion.
A good coach will check protective gear to ensure that it fits, provide conditioning exercises to prepare for the demands of competition, make sure players aren't overexerting themselves, and teach the basics of the sport, experts said.
Coaching the basics correctly can significantly reduce the risk of injury, particularly for children new to a particular sport, said Michael Bergeron, an applied physiologist and assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia, and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
"A novel sport lends itself to being injured because players don't know what their abilities and capabilities are," Bergeron said.
With that in mind, parents should look for a coach with a good understanding of how the body functions and how a sport affects that function, McKeag said.
"Proper biomechanics is the way to staying injury-free, really, for any sport," he said. "The idea is to not throw 200 balls at a time, but to learn the mechanics of how to throw the ball correctly."
Coaches who drive kids relentlessly can cause overuse injuries like Little League shoulder and Little League elbow, two types of injury that dog young ball players Bergeron said.
"A parent needs to be mindful of, 'Gee, are they doing too much?' " he said. "All of the overload experiences adults have, kids are subject to as well."
Coaches also can advise parents about the proper equipment their child should have for the sport they plan to play. "That equipment might be as simple as the right shoes," Bergeron said.
McKeag said good equipment doesn't always need to be expensive. "Most gear for kids can't be marketed unless it's halfway decent," he said. "It's perfectly OK to get less-costly equipment as long as it fits well."
The fit of the equipment is extremely important, both experts say. Loose shoes can cause twisted ankles. And loose protective equipment -- like a baseball batting helmet -- can fail when your child needs it the most.
"This is not the time to buy something the child will grow into," McKeag said. "You don't want to do that. You want the gear to fit well."
Conditioning for a sport also is necessary to avoid injury, particularly for older children. This can take the form of weight training or aerobic exercise in the months leading up to the season.
"Often it's appropriate to have kids do some physical conditioning so they don't go into it 'cold,' " Bergeron said. "Especially if they have been competing at a high level, you want to make sure they're in shape for the sport."
The same holds true for stretching and warm-up exercises, such as light jogging.
"Most young children have very loose, limber limbs," McKeag said. "The earth will not stand still if a child does not stretch."
Still, coaches and parents might want to get kids into the habit of stretching and conditioning at an early age, so it comes naturally for them later, he said.
Parents also need to make sure their kids are eating right.
"They need to be eating more and making sure they have a better energy stake," Bergeron said. "Also, kids are normally a little bit dehydrated. You need to make sure they're taking in enough fluids."
Finally, plenty of rest can help kids maintain concentration on the field.
"Being fatigued from not getting enough rest can make you subject to injury," Bergeron said. "You aren't paying as much attention to balance, might not be able to see hazards before they trip you up."
To learn more, visit the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation.