Kids in Cleats: How Soccer Is Evolving to Kick Injury Risks
It’s a great time to be a soccer fan—the U.S. women’s team recently clinched its fourth Women’s World Cup title and soccer fever and youth participation is on the rise nationwide. In the exhilarating final against the Netherlands, Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle scored second-half goals to seal the victory, showing no indication that both were still healing from hamstring injuries earlier in the tournament.
If even the professionals can get injured on the field, the risk is even greater for youth players. From minor muscle strains to serious concussions, soccer is the top sport leading to injuries according to a study of kids’ sports injuries treated by ER doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital.
As a result, the sport is promoting education and awareness, updating rules, and improving equipment to help prevent and manage injuries. The most common soccer injuries are concussion and leg and foot injuries. Let’s take a look at some strategies to prevent these injuries and keep kids happily running up and down the field.
The most concerning soccer injury stems from something that isn’t even the primary focus of the game: the head. Repeated headers are to blame for a large number of recurring concussions that occur in soccer. Apart from the occasional player collision, players that head a ball at an average of 125 times over a two-week period are three times as likely to be undergo a concussion than a player who barely heads at all—less than four times during the same span—according to a 2017 study.
Even more concerning, soccer players who have never experienced a concussion can still have brain changes from routine and unprotected headers, according to a Harvard Medical School study. As a result of both research and litigation, headers have been banned for kids aged 10 and under by the U.S. Soccer Federation, and kids aged 11-13 are only allowed to in practice, with a recommended limit of 15-20 headers/week. Enforcement varies by league, so consider talking to your child about avoiding headers and asking their coach about the league policy.
Leg and Foot Injuries
As you might expect, the overwhelming majority of soccer-related injuries are related to the lower extremities. Muscle strains and knee injuries are two of the most consistent injuries of note. However, most injuries occur during non-contact situations: Besides kicking motion, soccer is also running-heavy, and cutting, twisting, turning, jumping, and sudden stops increase the risk for muscle strains and ligament sprains.
Although running and maneuvering the field aren’t necessarily viewed as “key” soccer skills akin to kicking or passing the ball, youth soccer coaches are beginning to realize that lending extensive focus to these factors is important to keeping players healthy. Methods like detailed movement analysis, focusing on running form in practice, and emphasizing warm-up and cool-down stretching are helping to pinpoint trouble areas and prevent injury. Properly fitted protective gear, like approved shin guards, can also help protect kids from potential collision injuries.
Preventing Soccer Injuries
Injuries happen in fast-paced contact sports like soccer, but here are some tips for keeping kids off the sidelines:
- Proper warm-up and cool-down: Warm-up exercises like the FIFA11+ Warm-Up take just minutes to do and can go a long way to preventing injury: Youth soccer teams who performed the 11+ Warm-Up at least twice a week had 37 percent fewer training injuries, 29 percent fewer match injuries, and nearly 50 percent fewer severe injuries.
- Movement conditioning: It’s never too early to start teaching kids the importance of good running form and balance. Help them practice shifting directions at a slow pace before working up to a full run, and try out one-leg stability exercises.
- Know the rules: Educating your child on the rules of the sport can help them avoid dangerous plays and situations that can put themselves and their opponents at risk for injury.
- Good nutrition and hydration: Like any kids’ sport, it’s important to keep them nourished and hydrated. The meals and water intake in the days leading up to a big game are just as, if not more important than the water bottle on the field.
Help From the Pros
While soccer has made big strides in injury prevention and recovery, it still has far to go, and injuries can happen regardless. If your child is experiencing aches and pains stemming from an injury, consider getting her or him checked out by an Orthology clinician, so they can get back to doing what they love.