Boy soccer player shooting ball toward goal

Preventing concussion in young athletes

Participating in sports can have many benefits for children and teens – both physically and psychologically.

Young women playing basketball in a gymnasium

But sports also come with increased risk of certain injuries, including concussion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.5 million high school students reported having at least one sport-related concussion during the previous year. Of those students, nearly half said they had two or more.

While the risks are serious, parents, coaches and athletes can implement some simple, evidence-based best practices to protect young athletes.

“I think there’s no safer time than now to play sports due to increased awareness and regulation, but there is no risk-free activity or sport,” said Jenna Ford, APRN, who oversees the Concussion Clinic at OSF HealthCare Illinois Neurological Institute.

Because kid’s brains and bodies are still developing, the pediatric experts at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois agree that it’s especially important to start practicing safety measures in sports and activities when children are young.

Creating a culture of safety

Parents, coaches and athletes all have roles to play in creating a safe, competitive environment.

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

“In a sports arena, the way to prevent concussion is to create a safe sport culture,” Jenna said.

As a parent or coach, you can:

Expect safe play. Be up front with young athletes about your expectations and make it clear that certain rules are in place for their own safety. Require helmets or protective head gear when appropriate, and never tolerate dangerous or dirty play.

Develop a concussion action plan. This includes having a process in place for what to do if a concussion is suspected or confirmed. Ask your child’s coach or a league administrator to ensure they have a plan for recognizing possible concussions as well as safely allowing athletes to return to play.

Encourage athletes to report symptoms. Baseline testing and concussion action plans are important tools, but in order to protect young athletes, they need to understand why these processes are in place. Estimates suggest that up to half of athletes don’t report their symptoms and continue to compete with a concussion, which can prolong recovery and increase the likelihood of another concussion. Have honest conversations with your child and explain why taking time to recover is so important.

Enforce the rules. All of these tips can help prevent concussions and speed recovery time, but only if parents, coaches and players are committed to applying these rules consistently.

Pre-season prep

Boy soccer player with teammates

Preventing injuries can begin before practice starts.

Young athletes can focus on wellness and conditioning in the off-season to not just boost their performance but help them stay healthy. By training in the off-season, athletes can reduce their overall risk of injury, including brain injuries like concussions and musculoskeletal injuries like breaks, sprains and strains.

“An athlete who is more agile and has more strength is going to have better reaction time and be able to better absorb the shock of impact,” Jenna said.

Many sports teams at the high school level and higher have included some kind of concussion education or baseline testing as part of their pre-season education.

If you suspect your child has suffered a concussion, they should be seen by their primary care provider for initial evaluation. Referrals to the OSF INI Concussion Clinic are recommended if symptoms are not improving after four weeks. You can also request an appointment in the Concussion Clinic by calling (877) 464-6670.

Last Updated: September 13, 2023

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Brain & Spine, Kids & Family