5 Potential Danger Zones in the Young Athlete

Kids need a challenge but they also need special handling. Most people think, why? My kids are flexible, resilient, and young. They bounce back from anything thrown at them. Let’s throw it all at them! They can handle it.

Not so fast. Why? Because they’re growing, and growing presents special challenges and unique demands. They’re not mini-adults meant to comply with a scaled down version of an adult exercise prescription. And they aren’t immune to the illness and injury that can come from too much, too fast; in fact they’re especially susceptible.

Yet, the run-of-the-mill trainer or performance specialist, credentials and all, may not be aware of this. In their enthusiasm to whip those kids into championship-shape they may supply textbook training meant for the healthy young-adult athletes it was prescribed for, not realizing its potential dangers for the child, adolescent and teen athlete.

Kids are not adults and it is not healthy or safe to train them that way. While they are maturing, their bodies, minds, and spirits are developing (expanding, contracting and finding they’re way around) which means they are not a stable, predictable population to work with at all. Every parent knows this because we are dealing with a different human being every morning! Let alone at every practice.

Kids are different from each other and vastly from adults. We need to recognize those differences and keep it in mind as we work with them, teach them, coach them and parent them. We can consider that a frustration or an opportunity. Frustrating because we can’t apply our “cookie-cutter” programs, but an opportunity because what we supply will mold and shape this child in the years ahead. I think they’re worth a little extra effort, don’t you?

Just remember: growing makes kids fragile. The “tough” ones always want to be part of the action and refuse to give up may be especially prone to injuries in their fast-growing years. These “growing pains” are common because fast-growing tissues are sensitive and easily inflamed. High impact, nearly constant activity that used to be “challenging” may now be overly demanding and painful. Modifications may be necessary.

If you train, coach, or work with kids, you should know the areas that are particularly susceptible to rapid growth and the changes that may need special handling. Here are potential “danger zones”:

Growth Plates in Growing Bones

gymnast-wrist-compression-growth-plate-injuryNear the ends of the long bones are areas of active bone growth. The cartilage laid down there before dense bone fills in the gap is especially sensitive to impact and repeated compression. Of special concern, injury at the growth plate can disrupt regular growth there and present problems for the formation of mature bone. When a child has pain near a joint, always take precautions against a growth-related injury.

Impaired Flexibility

sit-and-reach-childDuring rapid growth, bones tend to grow faster than the muscles which attach to them. This often creates a mis-match between limb length and joint flexibility which can make stretching especially difficult or painful. Keep stretching! Just be sure stretches are slow and sustained, gently tugging but not painful. Acknowledge the difficulty, and modify stretches if necessary, using props like a towel or a yoga block. Regular stretching will help the elastic tissues catch up with “their” bones.

Joints, Especially Knees (Osgood Schlatter) and Ankles (Severs)

osgood-schlatter-kneesLengthening bones, contracting muscles and regular, repetitive motion often spells pain in growing athletes. Two common ailments are Osgood Schlatter’s disease (which appears as a bump below the kneecap where the patellar tendon attaches) and Severs disease (which presents as pain in the back of the heel where the Achilles tendon attaches). Tight muscles and taut tendons pulling on growing bones cause painful inflammation. Kids in pain may need to adapt their activity to stay healthy.

Awkward Movement and Poor Coordination

girl-hopscotch-coordinationKids with quickly growing limbs need time for their brains to catch up with their bodies. What used to be easy to coordinate now presents unexpected challenges and often embarrassment. The coordinated kid is suddenly uncoordinated. They need time to “relearn” the movements and adjust the brain commands sent to the muscles which used to accomplish these movements easily. Patience, time and practice will work it all out.

Mental and Emotional Sensitivity

usa-today-stress-high-schoolGrowing kids are on an emotional roller coaster. The demands on their days and nights – physical, mental, emotional and social – can be overwhelming, and the introduction of hormones to the growth equation scatter things further. Tweens and teens need rock-solid support and encouragement as they grow through this and our assurance they will get through this. As so many things change, they need to know who they can count on to be a stabilizing force through it all.

Until their bodies have matured, children, adolescents and teens need special care and attention from the adults who care for and work with them. We need, especially, to keep a watchful eye on areas most impacted during times of rapid growth and to be ready to adapt our demands in order to keep them healthy for a lifetime of activity.

Be aware of these “potential danger zones,” and be sure that anyone you hire to work with your young athletes has the know-how to adapt their training appropriately to the age and developmental stage of your kids to protect them from injury.

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