Maybe the only thing outpacing the rise in youth sports injuries is the freely given advice about preventing them. The problem is, none of it quite explains how, says Joe Janosky, director of sports safety at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), which is ranked the #1 hospital in the country for orthopedics by US News and World Report for the past eight years. And that leaves youth league organizers grasping elsewhere — anywhere — for direction. “They know it’s their job to help children develop safely, but they simply don’t know how to do that,” says Joe, who has met with many a desperate organizer. And so here are three concrete ways from Joe that, you know, can’t hurt.
- Create a Culture that Prioritizes Sports Safety
If you’ve struggled to create an injury prevention policy for your league, you’re not alone. The task is challenging to many organizers, most of whom have no policy experience, Joe says. Joe’s HSS team is working to develop a step-by-step process for creating smart, implementable policies that all youth sports groups will be able to access; they expect to release it by the end of the year, along with a sports safety education series. Joe says all coaches should receive sports safety training.
Most sports programs judge coaches by the number of wins their strategies inspire (hopefully high) and the number of complaints their style incite (ideally low). Inserting injury prevention as the third leg of that evaluation sends a message of its importance. Even after a big win, leagues need to ask whether the coach emphasized safety. “We know that over 90 percent of parents are seriously or extremely concerned with the safety of their children engaged in sports,” Joe says. “An organizer who includes injury prevention in evaluations can then offer that as an example of their thoughtful, systematic response.”
- If You Can’t Beat Specialization — Learn from It
If we’re going to be serious about trying to prevent injuries in our children we are going to have to take a long, hard look at the increasingly common and ever-more-vilified practice of sport specialization. Mind you, Joe doesn’t think there is an inherent problem in a player who is single-minded in the game he or she plays, or a league that recruits particularly focused players. But he does think that the more specialized the organization is, the greater its responsibility to fight injury with every available tool.
Consider the marathoner, who he holds up as the ultimate example of sport specialization. The best ones aren’t criticized because they don’t cross-train enough. Still, their regimens are carefully planned to create a competitor who is capable of staying the course — and staying on the course. Joe wants to see such thinking applied to other sports. “Look at movement quality, make sure rest and recovery are emphasized and actively incorporated into training, making sure hydration levels are high and footwear is appropriate,” he says. “Anything that may contribute to injury must be addressed.”
3: Coach Up Mom and Dad
“You’ve got parents who are super invested in their children’s lives,” Joe says. “Take advantage of that. Teach them to identify injury risk.” They can be trained to notice their children’s improper movements when practicing at home, and to encourage risk-reducing ones. (Athletes, of course, can be trained to spot improper movement too.) Organizers could consider hosting an injury prevention workshop for parents, as well as coaches. “If you can create an army of parents that know what to look for, you’ve just created a huge resource for yourself and the collective risk of injury for all of those kids goes way down.”
Sports programs in the New York City area can contact HSS through their community workshop website to arrange in-person training. For organizations too far away, HSS is working on a digital training program, which will be released later this year.