Expert Tips from Just Ask Children's

Sports and Fitness Web

Every parent is the expert on their own kid, but sometimes we can all use a little help. We pose your questions to the experts at Children’s Hospital Colorado, highlighting a popular topic every month.

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This month's topic: sports and fitness

1. What age should my child start playing sports? 

All kids are different, but generally kids need to be about 6 or 7 years old before they can listen and pay attention for long enough to grasp and follow the rules. 

Although 3- and 4-year-old children can throw and run, it’s not really until the first grade or so that they develop the physical coordination to do both at the same time. This is also the time they gain the emotional maturity to understand concepts like taking turns and playing as a team, which are essential to most sports.

Of course, lots of sports do offer programs for preschoolers, and certainly they can’t hurt — as long as the kiddos are having a good time. Choose a program that emphasizes basic skills and fun, and don’t be too surprised if they spend the whole time kicking the ball to the wrong end of the field or digging a hole in the dirt with their toe.

Source: Dr. Aaron Provance

2. Does it really make a difference to buy expensive gear? 

Well, you saw this answer coming: sometimes. And it depends.

Kids grow. They also have a tendency to lose interest. If your kiddo is just starting out playing a sport, in most cases it makes sense to take a “wait and see” approach to gear-related spending, if just to gauge their seriousness. And even then, unless they’re older teens, whatever gear you buy they’ll grow out of soon. Spending a bit more for better designed and better quality gear can make a difference in performance, but it might be a good idea to wait until they’re done growing and become dedicated to a particular sport before throwing down the big bucks.

And extra spending won’t equate to extra safety. A recent study on football helmets looked at a number of football helmet brands and models and found no difference in the rate of concussion between helmet types or ages, even when the helmet was reconditioned by the manufacturer. The most economical option will offer just as much safety as the most expensive. Interestingly, the same study found that the risk for concussion was higher in players wearing a custom mouth-guard than those wearing a generic one. So in that case, it really is better not to spend the money.

Footwear, too, can make a big difference, the most important factor being a good fit. A properly fit shoe built for the proper purpose does wonders for comfort and performance, and helps prevent injury, too.

Source: Dr. Kyle Nagle

3. What makes a good coach for my kids?

We asked teens that same question — what makes a good coach? — and found out something interesting.  According to teens, winning doesn’t matter that much. Of the kids who responded to our online survey, only 9% said a coach with a good winning record was most important. The rest thought the most important quality was giving everyone a chance to play (46%) and teaching new skills (45%).

They also looked for a coach who took the time to get to know and understand a player’s individual strengths and weaknesses, one who wouldn’t hold back on (constructive) criticism, one who could offer insight not only into the sport but into basic life-skills, such as positivity and perseverance.

Most important of all: making it fun.

Of course, it’s hard to gather all this info on a coach when you’re not the one showing up to practice and playing the games. The best thing you can do? Ask your child questions about his or her coach, and about his or her experience of playing in general, and listen! We all know teens aren’t always right, but they do have a point: at the end of the day, kids’ sports are supposed to be fun.

Source: Dr. Jay Albright

4. By age, how many hours per week is it normal for kids to practice? 

Different programs have different standards, but a decent rule of thumb is that the number of hours of practice per week should not exceed the players’ age; i.e., a 6-year-old shouldn’t practice more than six hours per week. 

Even in their teens, kids’ bodies grow. Too much sustained practice (especially with repetitive movements, such as in baseball or tennis) can strain on the growing areas of bones, tendons and joints, causing injuries like sprains, cartilage damage or stress fractures — some permanent. 

Another factor to consider is how much your kids want to practice. If they’re getting burned out, chances are good their interest in the sport won’t last.

Source: Dr. Aaron Provance

5. How can my child avoid getting cramps during games or practice? 

Lots of factors play a role in muscle cramps, and there is no cure, but a few precautions can certainly help. Good hydration is at the top of the list, so the first step is drinking water, and plenty of it. 

Another thing the body needs is salt. People tend to think of salt as dehydrating, which it can be, but it’s more accurate to say that the body needs to maintain proper balance between water and salt, and too much or not enough of either can be trouble. The body loses a lot of water during heavy exercise, but it also loses a lot of salt – both through sweat – so a hard workout demands replenishing both. Sports drinks include electrolytes (a fancy word for “salt”), but a big glass of water and a salty snack is just as good, if not better, since a salty snack is likely to contain some protein, where as a sports drink is not.

Good stretching and warm-up habits also help. A cold, tense muscle is much more likely to cramp and cause injury than a warm, loose one. Get more hydration tips. 

That’s why it’s best not to play through a cramp. Have your child relax, drink water, eat something salty, stretch and wait for it to pass.

Source: Dr. Katherine Dahab

6. What should I do if I think my child has a concussion? How long is the recovery time? If my child gets one concussion, is it easier to get another?

A concussion results from a blow to the head or an impact to the body strong enough to bounce the brain around inside the skull. Which, for a variety of reasons, is not good for the brain.

Concussions might not cause any loss of consciousness, but that doesn’t make them less serious. If you see your child take a hard hit, be on the lookout for symptoms — dizziness, headache, vomiting, confusion, acting dazed, forgetting what happened — and take her out of the game to prevent further injury. And have her evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Recovery time varies from kid to kid and from concussion to concussion, but most kids and teens recover within a few days to a few weeks. Still, research suggests that a previous concussion ups the risk of more concussions, so it’s important to let your child recover fully, and wait until a medical professional gives the go-ahead to play.

Getting back in the game too fast can have negative consequences. Give the brain the time it needs to heal. Get more concussion resources. 

Source: Dr. Julie Wilson

7. Is chocolate milk really good for recovering from a workout? 

Absolutely! In fact, in some ways, low fat chocolate milk is an ideal workout recovery drink: it replenishes fluids and electrolytes for hydration, it’s a source of protein for good muscle repair and carbohydrates for an immediate energy boost, and it replenishes nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. Of course, kids could also get these benefits from a light snack, but after a hard workout, it’s often more appealing to drink than eat, and chocolate milk comes in liquid form.

Plus — and maybe most importantly — it’s delicious. Please keep in mind, chocolate milk also contains sugar, so drink it in moderation. Read more about the benefits of chocolate milk as a recovery drink. 

Source: Dr. Katherine Dahab

8. Do those soccer headbands really protect against injury?

Yes and no. Soccer header bands can certainly protect against cuts and bumps to the head in the area they cover, and they may help disperse the force of impact. But they’re far from failsafe. The brain is suspended in fluid inside the skull, so a hard hit can bounce it around in there even if padding cushions the blow, which is why football players get concussions even wearing helmets. 

Use of head bands is still optional, as their effectiveness in reducing concussions is not truly known.

Source: Dr. Julie Wilson

9. What sports have the highest risk of injury? What about the lowest? 

It’s hard to say definitively, since there’s no one governing body that counts sports injuries. In fact, there’s not even a definitive way of counting them. That said, looking at a few different sets of numbers reveals some pretty good rough conclusions, some surprising, some not.

For boys, football remains a leader in injuries overall. One study looking at high school sports found football injury rates during competition higher than 12 injuries per 1,000 athletic exposures, defined as one athlete’s participation in a practice or competition. Combining practice and competition, the total injury rate for football was nearly four per 1,000 overall. Wrestling racked up 2.23 per 1,000 overall, and boys’ ice hockey, soccer and lacrosse all averaged 1.7 to 1.8 overall. 

The lowest injury rate for boys went to swimming, tennis and cross-country, with rates of significantly less than one injury per 1,000 exposures overall.

Soccer, field hockey and basketball clocked the highest injury rates for girls, with 2.7, 2.0 and 1.8 injuries per 1,000 respectively, while swimming and tennis averaged the lowest risk for girls as well. Cheerleading, although relatively low-risk with an injury rate of 0.75 per 1,000 exposures, accounts for 65% of catastrophic injuries in female high school athletes.

In terms of concussions, football, hockey and lacrosse post the highest concussion rates for high school boys, while swimming, diving, baseball and track report the lowest. For high school girls, the highest concussion rates go to soccer, field hockey and lacrosse, with track, swimming, diving and volleyball posting the lowest.

Source: Dr. Kyle Nagle

10. Is it okay to let my child quit a sport? 

Signing up for a league or a lesson is a time commitment and usually involves shelling out at least some amount of time, money, or both for the parent, too. For that reason, it makes sense to hold kiddos to the commitment for at least the length of the season or bundle of lessons, or some other predetermined amount of time. Learning a new skill in a new group of people can be intimating at first, or discouraging or boring. Talk with your child before she starts and strike a deal: that she may play, but if she does, she must ride it out until the end — even if she doesn’t like it — rather than abandoning hope at the first sign of struggle. 

Do this within reason, of course. As in any situation, the best thing to do is to listen to your kiddos, even if you don’t intend to acquiesce. Maybe she just needs to blow off some steam, or have a shoulder to cry on. Then again, maybe she really does have some compelling reason for wanting to quit. 

And when the agreed-upon length of time has elapsed, if she still wants to quit, hold up your end of the bargain, too, and let her.

Source: Dr. Stephanie Mayer

Get more free advice for your young athlete from our Sports Medicine experts.