How to Strike Back at Rising Injury Rates in Youth Soccer
Feb 8, 2023
During the pandemic, reports began to emerge that injuries in professional soccer were on the rise. But this pattern has been observed for years among youth players, and it’s concerning for both players and their parents.
Why is it happening? There are many factors, ranging from overexertion to changing play styles. Nevertheless, we can counteract youth soccer injuries once we get better at recognizing their causes.
Stats and facts on rising injury rates
Are injury rates truly on the rise, or are we just getting better at documenting them? This question has researchers, coaches, and organizers stumped. Nevertheless, we see some concerning trends and numbers that illustrate the present risks associated with the beautiful game.
Youth soccer injury statistics
- 44 percent of all soccer injuries occur in kids under fourteen years of age
- Around 412,607 injuries occur in young soccer players (including male and female) every year
- 22 percent of those injuries are concussions
- Among children, the most injured body parts were the wrists, fingers, and hands, accounting for 20.3 percent of reports, while 18.2 percent were the ankles and 11.4 percent were the knees
- Also, among children, 35.9 percent of medical injury diagnoses from soccer were sprains and strains, 24.1 percent were bruises and abrasions, and 23.2 percent were fractures.
We also need to pay more attention to gender differences because injuries affect boys and girls uniquely.
Boys versus girls soccer injuries
- During a study of the 2021-2022 school year, concussions accounted for 10.6 percent of injuries in boys but 21.9 percent in girls
- A high school surveillance study of the 2018-2019 school year, found boys suffered head injuries most during competitions (26.8 percent of injuries), while thigh and upper leg injuries were the most common during practices (22.7 percent)
- This same study also found that girls had an identical profile (albeit at different rates); head injuries were most common during competitions at (30.6 percent of injuries), while thigh and upper leg injuries were most common during practices (26.2 percent of injuries)
These stats contrast those of adult players, who are more likely to sustain lower leg injuries.
Causes of rising injury rates
Let’s get one thing out the way—soccer isn’t becoming more dangerous per se. The game has changed in some ways (more on this below), but it’s worth mentioning the popularity of soccer has skyrocketed. Even here in the United States and Canada, viewership and youth enrollment has reached a fever pitch.
A great number of youth players translates to a proportional rise in youth injury rates, so the increased participation also drives the numbers up. But we can’t act blind to the realities of modern soccer, too. he game is getting tougher and more demanding.
Overload/overexertion due to demanding schedules
For all you soccer parents out there, heed this warning— the game you played isn’t what your kids play. Thanks to more facilities, programs, and resources, youth soccer is no longer relegated to neighborhood streets and school playgrounds. It’s transformed into an industry where young hobbyists train to become elite, and for a lucky few, professional. But the consequence of this is overload and burnout.
Young players are inundated with demanding schedules, which consists of practices, conditioning sessions, games, tournaments (often away from home), and more increasingly, game film sessions.
The consensus for weekly training in youth soccer sits between ten to twenty hours per week, but it’s not uncommon for youth to exceed that threshold. All that time spent playing leads to more strains and sprains. More concerningly, players are overexposed to more serious injuries, such as fractures and concussions.
Early specialization increases soccer injury risk
The other dilemma families deal with is deciding whether to focus on soccer or to play other sports too. It’s the now age-old specialization debate. New research suggests early specialization in soccer (or any sport) contributes to higher injury rates. Focusing on just soccer gives rise to what’s essentially repetitive stress injuries—constant running, cutting, kicking, and heading at a high volume over time, is a recipe for injury. A 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics warned about this before.
The problem too here is a lack of balance. Playing other sports offers young players a cross-training effect, by strengthening and conditioning muscles that may be underused (and prone to injury) in soccer. For example, a martial art, such as karate, muay thai, or taekwondo can help soccer players improve their core stability, balance, coordination, and reaction time.
Soccer-specific training may sometimes overlook these aspects of the game. When specialization happens too early, young players miss out on these benefits. Let’s not forget that kids are kids, and putting so much intensity into one sport can lead to resentment and burnout.
How to counteract rising injury rates
There isn’t a magic fix to this—protecting young players from rising injury risks doesn’t happen in one shot. It takes effort from players to be mindful of their limits and adjust their output accordingly. It takes effort from parents to advocate for kids to ensure that they’re getting the most from their training without overdoing it. But, also, it takes effort from coaches to recognize and ensure that youth players aren’t repeatedly pushed beyond their limits.
Doing less to play more.
- Reduce demanding schedules and loads—Remember the sweet spot mentioned above.Young players should train ten to twenty hours weekly. No more, no less, unless medically cleared to do so. It’s also ideal for coaches and organizers to avoid stacking games, tournaments, and practices too close to each other.
- Prioritize soccer conditioning drills—Youth players should perform conditioning drills for injury prevention and neuromuscular efficiency weekly. The FIFA 11+ is ideal because it teaches the nervous system and muscles how to move efficiently and at high intensity and force, key to preventing strain. A 2020 study found that FIFA 11+ exercises reduced moderate injury occurrence by 55 percent and severe injuries by 71 percent.
- Introduce recovery protocols earlier—True, young players have youth on their side and can recover quickly. However, with more demanding schedules in modern soccer, youth players should learn and practice proper rest after games. Additionally, they should cool down after games and eat a nutritious diet to help them recover adequately.
- Let kids play other sports—Specialization isn’t guaranteed to turn a young player into the next Messi, Ronaldo, or Mbappe, but it’s a well-known recipe for burnout! Let kids relax during the off-season. And let them play other sports for fun and to gain cross-training benefits. No matter how talented a young player may be, they shouldn’t feel like it’s a full-time job.
- Encourage the use of soccer protective gear—Wearing soccer protective gear is an obvious part of the game, but some pieces of gear are overlooked. Soccer concussion headgear is one of them, and it shouldn’t be since research shows that headgear can reduce brain injury risk, which is higher for youth. We also recommend using gear, such as impact protection and anti-turf burn gear, which reduce bruising and abrasions, respectively.
Injuries can and will still occur. But we can help young players avoid the worst of them by taking a more proactive approach to injury prevention.
Storelli’s mission statement to help contribute to a safer playing ground for youth soccer
From the day we opened our doors in 2010, we set out on a mission to give soccer players all the resources they need to beat injuries. We’ve done so with a wide range of soccer protective gear that provides safety features that go above and beyond standard accessories.
But we also offer tips and knowledge (via our blog) to educate soccer families looking to stay safe on the pitch. We know the “less is more” approach to soccer won’t happen overnight, but we’re getting the ball rolling.
Whether you’re a player, a parent, or a coach, check out our gear and articles. They’re made for the dedicated players who want to be at their best for as long as possible.Looking for more tips on safety and performance in soccer? Check out our blog for more insights.