The sun is shining. Birds are singing. Blossoms are blooming… and the soccer balls are flying! Soccer is the most commonly played sport in the world enjoyed by all ages. In 2005, about 20% of children younger than 14 years of age participated in soccer, a number which is likely higher now.

Training in organized sports during the younger years has been shown to, improve general health, have psychological benefits, and enhance performance in physical activities. However, children and adolescents are at risk of injury with sports, and special considerations need to be kept with regards to their growing bodies. Studies have shown higher risk in younger age groups, particularly those under 15.

The leg joints and muscles are commonly hurt, with strains, sprains, and bone or cartilage damage. Injuries can occur due to a traumatic event, or overuse, in either a game or in practice. While some aches and pains are relatively minor, the sprain receiving the most attention in soccer is the ACL tear. The risk of this season-ender is high due to the nature of the sport with quick changes of directions, cutting manoeuvres, sudden stops with a foot planted on the ground, and collisions with other players.

The good news? Injuries can be prevented! Training programs exist specifically for soccer players and have been shown to reduce the risk of injuries, including the ACL tear. These programs are based on well designed studies, and can be carried out by an individual experienced with this kind of training: this could be, for example, a coach or a physiotherapist.
The programs decrease injury risk by:
Decreasing muscle fatigue
Improving stability of the trunk, pelvis and joints of the leg
Optimizing balance between muscle groups
Increasing balance
Improving body technique and body mechanics.
Special training programs for young soccer players often involve a cardiovascular warm-up, strength building, stretching, agility drills, and exercises with fast, powerful movements (plyometrics).
Note to any young athletes reading: remember all those dreaded drills of burpees, hopping over cones, and jumping on/off high steps? Try to smile through them, and think of how much you’re lowering your risk of being kept out of the game.

Having a history of previous injury increases the chances of getting hurt again. The high rate of re-injury suggests players often return to sport with incomplete healing or rehab. Factors to preventing recurrence of an injury include: completing a rehab program specific to the individual, gradual return to training and competing, use of bracing and taping if appropriate, and consulting a professional to ensure the young athlete is ready before returning to sport.

Another injury risk factor that can get overlooked in the young is the occurrence of a ‘burn out’, which can happen with over training. Some signs to watch for include:
Sleep changes
Persistent aches and pains
Decreased physical performance
Changes to mood and attention
Decreased academic performance
If you note these signs, consider if over-training is a factor. Consulting your coach or health professional is important for recognizing burn-out and preventing injury. An appropriate training program will be intense enough to obtain desirable goals, without resulting symptoms of overtraining.

Participating in organized sports has many benefits for children and adolescents. To prevent injuries to stay in the game: consider incorporating a special supervised training program, give time for injuries to heal, and be aware of signs of overtraining. As the temperatures soar into the double-digits, the clouds give us reprieve, and the spring sports recommence, I hope you and your young athletes stay injury-free… and have a ball!