Youth: Keeping Youth Soccer Players Healthy
Jul 19, 2019
***This article is part of an educational series for soccer parents and youth players new to soccer***
Bodily wear-and-tear is an ominous yet well-understood reality for aging athletes. The constant pounding of joints, ligaments, and tendons, combined with diminished healing abilities, pushes older athletes further away from their heydays. It’s a reality we all accept.
But overuse injuries are affecting youth soccer players at alarming rates. In fact, youth soccer players who are only in their teens are sustaining a shockingly high rate of overuse injuries. For this reason alone, it’s vital for youth, coaches and parents to make protective soccer gear a high priority.
What is also important is to understand the root causes of overuse injuries in youth players and why they’re becoming so common.
Before Their Time
In 2017, an NY Post story was published about Tiffany Lin, a young soccer player who attended Manhattan’s Beacon School. During a soccer game in 2016, she suddenly began to feel a sharp pain in her right knee.
She tried to play through the pain, but when it didn’t subside, she visited a doctor to determine its cause. Lin was then diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease, which causes inflammation just below the knees and mostly occurs during growth spurts.
Osgood-Schlatter disease worsens when young people constantly pound their knees during high-impact sports such as soccer. This was likely the case for Lin considering the fact that she would play up to seven days a week (in school and a recreational league).
Lin was sidelined for a few weeks with the injury and revealed that her doctor said: “...it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t overusing my body so much.”
This story is not only unfortunate for Tiffany Lin, but concerning for thousands of other youth soccer players and still-growing athletes who push themselves through gruelling schedules. It’s likely that they, too, will see their share of overuse injuries.
“I’m seeing these overuse injuries in younger and younger people,” says Michael A. Kelly, MD, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center.
And these injuries are affecting youth players all across the spectrum, ranging from those who are barely in their teen years up to those in college.
The Numbers on Youth Soccer Injuries
Research studies conducted over the years have shown the following results:
- The average injury rate among youth soccer players jumped 111% between 1990-2014.
- More than 70% of those injuries were among children ages 12-17.
- Sprains and strains account for the majority of these injuries at 34.6%.
- Although head injuries accounted for only 7.3% of all injuries, the rate of concussions among youth players jumped 1,600% between 1990-2014.
Granted, there has been a huge uptick in youth soccer registrations - in 1974, a little over 100,000 kids were playing soccer compared to over 4+ million youngsters playing now- so naturally, the injury rate will be higher. However, there are other factors responsible for the increase in youth player injuries.
Too Much Playing Time
As was the case with Tiffany Lin, many youth soccer injuries occur because of too much time spent on the pitch. This isn’t uncommon- in 2015, it was reported that many youth soccer players were able to participate in as many as 80 games or more.
They’re playing at school, outside of school, in tournaments, and even abroad. Traveling to compete against other teams is far from rare anymore. Much of this comes from the desire (or pressure) for kids to specialize in a sport at a young age. For economically disadvantaged kids, the opportunity to play for scholarship opportunities can also bring about a hypercompetitive approach to the game.
No matter the cause, though, there’s no denying that too much game time is largely responsible for the increase in overuse injuries.
Reducing Overuse Injuries in Youth Soccer Players
Ultimately, the solution to reducing the overuse injuries in youth soccer players is for coaches and league organizers to ensure that they’re well-rested and properly protected. These elements go a long way to keep young players safe and healthy.
Reduce Playing Time & Game Frequency Where Necessary
Yes, youth players are...well, young. Nevertheless, their exuberance and energy do not safeguard them from injuries seen in older and more mature athletes. It’s important for parents and coaches to remember that the skeletal structure of a child or teenager is still developing and therefore, vulnerable. Growth plates have not yet fused and the bones themselves can sustain injuries if they’re subjected to excessive stress.
Coaches and league organizers should ensure that youth players aren’t playing too many minutes or in too many games. This may not seem necessary for the most elite young players, who dominate the pitch in terms of their skills and conditioning, but it is nonetheless essential.
Coaches should develop a keen sense of when a player might be fatigued even when it’s readily apparent. Also, parents should be diligent in monitoring how often their kids play, making sure that their young stars enjoy breaks to give their bodies time to heal and rest.
Soccer Protective Gear
The use of soccer protective gear is not an option for youth players - this rings true from head to toe. With that said, choosing the right protective gear in youth soccer requires an understanding of not only soccer performance but also, the individual bodies of young players.
From a performance and safety perspective, youth players need to protect all “weak links”. The essential soccer protective gear youth players should wear include:
Apart from choosing the essential soccer protective gear, it’s also important to select the right equipment based on players’ size and skill level. When it comes to size, the way equipment fits will either provide the right level of comfort to support performance and safety or not. Also, keep in mind that youth players will likely outgrow their equipment as they age.
Additionally, it’s important to choose the right protective gear for one’s skill level, because certain equipment “fits” will either be too loose or too tight to allow one effectively practice vital skills. This is especially true for certain positions such as goalkeepers, where one’s glove choice (and fit) can improve or impede their natural saving ability.
Keeping Youth Players Healthy for the Long Run
Youth soccer is getting more aggressive and demanding. Boys and girls spend more time on the pitch, and that means their risk of sustaining overuse injuries is on the rise. Fortunately, these injuries are preventable. Coaches, league organizers and parents themselves should put emphasis on “load management” - a conscientious effort to provide players with adequate rest. Time given for recovery in addition to the use of protective gear will ensure that players’ injury risks are reduced for the short and long run.