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How to Set Up a Safe Sports Program for Kids:
What You Need to Know
By Sally Johnson and Nathan LaFayette
Creating a new youth sports or recreation program for a local athletic league, recreation center, parks department, or community center is a wonderful and exciting prospect. This gives young children and teenagers the chance to experience the thrill and camaraderie of team sports, as well as remain physically fit and active.
One of the most important components in setting up a youth sports program is safety. The health, well-being, and safety of our youngest athletes – no matter what the sport – are paramount and must take center stage. Just look at a handful of alarming statistics: Emergency room visits for concussions in kids ages 8-13 doubled from 1997 to 2207, and concussions have skyrocketed 200 percent among children ages 14 to 19 over the same time frame, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. High school athletes suffer 2 million injuries a year, with 500,000 doctor visits, according to a December 2011 fact sheet from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Sports and recreational activities contribute to about 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Additionally, athletes who have ever had a concussion are at an increased risk for another concussion. Although death from a sports injury is rare, the leading cause of death from a sports-related injury is a brain injury.
Given the nature of the injuries that can be sustained in youth sports, setting up safety guidelines for any new sports league must be established from the get-go. Here are some suggestions and pointers to offer the best, safest sports experience possible for our youngest – and most vulnerable – athletes.
MANDATE MEDICAL PRE-AUTHORIZATION
It should take more than just a permission slip from a parent to allow a child to participate in a sports league. A medical form from each child’s doctor should be supplied, which includes the child’s health history, illnesses, surgeries, and all immunizations. It should be determined in advance what medical conditions would not allow children to partake in certain kinds of sports.
HAVE THE PROPER PHYSICAL TRAINING
Kids need different basic physical training and conditioning, depending upon the sport. They require the proper warm-ups and cool down time to help protect overused muscles from injuries. This is why it is so important to know the medical history of each participating child. For instance, if a youth athlete broke his or her leg two years prior while playing a sport, that child would need to be assessed to make sure the limb properly healed and that the individual is strong enough to play the sport. Or, if a child is diabetic or has asthma, these medical conditions would play a role in the level of training and conditioning that would be allowable, even before beginning to play the sport.
BRING IN A PROFESSIONAL
This goes right into our next point. Depending upon how extensive the sports program is going to be, how many sports will be played, and how many children are participating, it may be worth hiring an athletic trainer – to at least get the program off the ground. They are certified and can provide the proper physical training and guidance, offer advice about equipment, and help create overall safety standards. The National Athletic Trainers Association (www.nata.org) would be a good resource for finding such an individual in your geographic area.
WEAR THE PROPER SAFETY EQUIPMENT…NO EXCEPTIONS
Utilizing the right head and face helmets; proper leg, shoulder, and trunk padding; and the correct shoes – during every game and every practice – are essential. Again, an athletic trainer can assist with this. The equipment should be inspected to make sure they fit each child properly and that they do not have holes or are frayed or damaged.
PAY ATTENTION TO WEATHER AND FIELD CONDITIONS
Obviously, the weather greatly impacts outdoor sports. Soaked baseball fields become hazardous and slippery if a game is played too soon after a storm. Extreme heat or cold should always be considered before a game or practice and are reasons enough to cancel a match – no questions asked. Pools, fields, asphalt, and concrete services all need to be inspected before a playing season starts and regularly during the season to make sure there are no cracks, holes, or wires that could be dangerous. Any damage found should be addressed and fixed before the children return to play.
EDUCATE THE PARENTS, KIDS, AND COACHES
Everyone has to practice good sportsmanship. No bullying can be permitted. This kind of aggressive behavior can lead to needless injuries to kids.
Parents and kids also need to be educated about good nutrition. To help keep kids adequately hydrated and avoid heat-related illnesses, parents should supply them with good ol’-fashioned water to drink before, during, and after taking part in a sport. Sodas and sweetened sports drinks will quickly boost energy, but then the child comes crashing down afterwards and maybe overly fatigued. Parents also should carry healthy snacks like fresh fruit, cheese, and carrots and celery sticks for their kids. These items offer young athletes good carbohydrates and proteins, compared to sugary and salty snacks like cookies and potato chips. Good nutrition will ultimately keep young competitors as strong and able-bodied as possible to compete at their best.
Another form of education involves knowing “when to sit it out.” Youth athletic directors and coaches can take a tip from the pros. In August 2011, the NFL passed the “Madden Rule.” It was named for former football player, coach, and color commentator John Madden, who suggested it to the NFL. This rule requires that any player who is suspected of suffering a concussion, even if not formally diagnosed, must be taken out of the game at once and escorted to the locker/training room. A member of the team’s medical staff (e.g. doctor, paramedic) must remain with the player to determine if the injury requires immediate hospitalization. There are no exceptions to this rule and the player is not to return to the field under any circumstances. The Madden Rule allows for a quiet environment to permit the athlete time to recover without any distraction even on the sidelines.
Coaches must take a child out of a game whenever a head injury or other major trauma is even suspected. Obtain medical attention immediately. “Toughing it out” is an old and dangerous attitude to have, especially when it comes to kids. One way to get this message across to children and parents, who may be very competitive, is to stress that if these rules are good enough for the NFL, then they are good enough for us!
With these tips and practical safety suggestions, you will be well on your way to offering youth athletes the best and safest experience possible.
Sally Johnson is executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports (www.ncys.org). NCYS is a non-profit advocacy and educational organization that promotes healthy lifestyles and safe environments for children. The NCYS membership represents more than 200 organizations/corporations serving 60,000,000 young athletes registered in organized youth sports.
Nathan LaFayette is senior vice president, specialty markets, of the Accident & Health division of Chartis. He is a spokesperson for Chartis’ aHead of the Game campaign, which seeks to inform the public about the dangers of concussions in youth sports. The website for aHead of the Game is www.chartisinsurance.com/aheadofthegame/. Chartis and NCYS have collaborated in their unified message to promote safe youth sports across the United States.