How to Help Youth Soccer Athletes Get a Leg Up on Injury Prevention
Of all the sports that young athletes can play worldwide, soccer ranks number one, with nearly four million children and adolescents participating each year. That number has steadily increased since 1990, and that growth trend in participation shows no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, some studies indicate that with the rapid rise in youth soccer participation, there may also be a correlation in the incidence of injuries among young soccer players.
Currently, most orthopedic injuries sustained by youth soccer players occur during competition rather than practice, and girls may be at higher risk than boys. Additionally, youth soccer injury risk tends to increase with athlete age – such that younger players are at less risk of serious injury than older, high school level athletes. With the proposition of youth soccer as a year-round sport that athletes can play on indoor turf fields, orthopedic overuse injuries are also a consideration. As one might expect, the areas of the body most affected by injury in youth soccer athletes tend to be the lower extremities – namely the knees and ankles.
So, how can the healthcare community, coaches, and families work together to encourage our young soccer players to participate in the sport they love while also helping to reduce their injury risk? There are some solid strategies to consider and employ. First, a pre-participation physical should be a must for all young athletes. This isn’t simply some unnecessary doctor’s appointment to check off a list. A pre-participation evaluation can alert us to any musculoskeletal malformations, previous injuries, or any other conditions that might make participation in soccer more dangerous for a particular athlete. If the medical evaluation reveals that a child has a pre-existing condition that puts them at an even more significantly increased risk of injury, that knowledge is crucial in determining if it is safe for him or her to play.
Biomechanical factors have been studied to increase knee injury risk in young soccer athletes, especially girls. Therefore, ensuring that your athlete is trained in proper landing and deceleration techniques and focused muscle strengthening exercises will help safeguard their health while playing soccer as well as other sports and activities they participate in. Additionally, a young soccer athlete’s training program should include neuromuscular warm-up exercises, proprioception, and plyometrics drills. These efforts help strengthen the gluteal and hamstring muscles – which, when strong, can be considered bodyguards of the knees. For a gold standard warm-up and training program, the FIFA 11 training module is highly recommended for athletes of all ages.
While adequate training that focuses on proper body mechanics is an essential youth soccer injury prevention strategy, so too is a focus on factors that may not seem sport specific. For example, year-round training in a single sport, be it soccer or another, can put young players at a significantly increased risk of overuse injuries. Especially for the youngest athletes, allow a few months of rest between seasons to help reduce injury risk.
Parents, be sure your young soccer player is wearing the right cleats for the surface on which they’re playing. Coaches, you should always inspect the soccer field surfaces to ensure they’re free from holes, mud, and debris. Any field area that can force a player to alter their body mechanics or speed suddenly puts that player at increased injury risk. Ensuring safe field conditions and playing surfaces are areas where we adults can significantly help to reduce the risk of injury.
As a pediatric sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon, my position on every youth athlete, no matter their sport, is that the best injury is the one that we can prevent from occurring in the first place. With the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute serving this year as an Official Medical Health Resource and Sports Medicine Partner for the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), we have the opportunity and responsibility to enhance youth soccer player health by educating parents and athletes on solid soccer injury prevention strategies. Education is power for players and their parents. By implementing these injury prevention strategies our young athletes can continue to participate in the sport they love, free from injury, and with incredible memories that will last a lifetime.