Parents have high hopes for their kids’ sporting endeavors — and those young athletes have big dreams themselves. No one knows more about this journey than sports medicine physician Jessica Flynn, MD, of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center. Dr. Flynn is also the mother of three children, ages three, eight and 12, and as both a parent and an athlete herself, she knows there often aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.
As you might expect, Flynn has more than a few parenting tips for moms and dads of athletes — especially when it comes to avoiding and managing injury. Here are her nine top suggestions for helping your kids play safely, stay healthy and succeed both on and off the field.
1. Don’t Overdo It
“Sometimes, the hardest thing as a parent is saying ‘no’ to your kids when there’s something they really want to do but you realize it’s too much,” said Flynn.
There’s no need for your kids’ athletic pursuits to always be hyper-serious; just being on a team can be a great experience in itself.
“It’s so good for children to work with other people, make sacrifices and all aim toward a common goal,” Flynn pointed out. “Teamwork teaches many good lessons, but a child doesn’t need to be on eight teams a year to reap the benefits of teamwork.”
2. Get Creative
With two very competitive older kids in sports, Flynn has had to invent new ways to manage everyone’s schedules — including her own. A large paper calendar used to do the trick, but now she uses a chalkboard wall to help plan who goes where and when.
“This helps me keep from overscheduling and keeps us grounded in reality,” she said. “It’s not smart to overdo schedules, especially at an early age.”
3. Avoid Overuse Injuries
You might think that acute injuries, such as a broken arm or sprained ankle, are the kinds of ailments sports medicine practitioners deal with the most — but in Flynn’s practice, that’s not the case.
“I see many more patients for overuse,” she said.
Overuse injuries happen due to repetitive stress coupled with inadequate recovery time. Children can be more susceptible because stresses occur to growing bones, which can also be more fragile.
4. Make Time for Recovery
Dr. Flynn is often the bearer of bad news when it comes to telling patients that their kids need to take time off from playing to heal an injury — but in many cases, that’s the necessary prescription.
“Taking that time is often a very difficult decision, sometimes with lots of tears all around,” said Flynn.
Taking time to recover can mean a week or multiple weeks or months. This can be tough, because for many budding athletes, sports are a major part of their life and their sense of identity. Try to be understanding, and remind them they have plenty of time to get back to their sport, Flynn suggested.
5. Tell Them They’ll Get Stronger
“For every athlete who ever made it, probably the most difficult challenge is recovering from an injury. Any professional athlete will tell you that,” said Dr. Flynn. Remind your kids that managing injuries is part of training for a sport and developing into a stronger athlete.
“It may seem devastating in the moment, but help them understand that after rest and rehabilitation, they can come back stronger than before.”
6. Ask for Honesty
When kids have a more serious injury, they know it. They may not tell their parents, or parents may not notice what’s going on.
“Parents need to have insights to these situations,” Flynn insisted, “so encouraging open conversations is always helpful.”
7. Consider the Alternatives
Your child might insist on going to practice and just not using their injured body part — but even the best-laid plans can still go wrong.
Flynn recounted a story of a young gymnast who incurred a lower-extremity injury and couldn’t do their usual routine. With a protective brace on their leg while rehabbing the injury, they did intense core work as an alternative and to retain some conditioning. But when the gymnast returned to the doctor for an assessment of their leg, they had a stress fracture in their arm.
“Their parent and coach unwisely pushed them to do more, even with the leg injury,” said Flynn. If your child’s doctor recommends rest with no physical activity, find creative ways at home to help them satisfy their competitive craving off the field.
8. Take Your Cues From Science
Ever wonder whether your child should be doing only one sport all the time? Research may shine some light on this question.
A 2016 consensus statement in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found no evidence that young children benefit from early sport specialization. In fact, they can be prone to overuse injury and burnout from focusing on just one sport. So for budding athletes whose interests vary, following those diverse passions shouldn’t hamper long-term success.
9. Work Together
It’s vitally important for everyone to be on the same team. When a child says, “But Mom, Dad, I want to…” remember that common sense must rule the day. In the end, you and your kids want the same thing: for them to be successful, happy and healthy. You just happen to know a little better than they do how to get to that end goal.
When in doubt, talk to a sports medicine physician about how to best help your child stay safe on the field, manage any injuries that occur and get back to playing their sport.