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Illustration of broken bone in leg; can't play sports

When Your Child Can’t Play Sports

how to help your child cope physically and emotionally

We’ve all heard about the advantages of youth sports. Kids learn teamwork. Get exercise. Develop a skill that could translate to college scholarships. (Ka-ching!) The benefits are very real.

So too are the reasons you may be concerned about sports. Perhaps your child has a previous injury they can’t aggravate. Or you just want to protect them from injury in the first place.

When you have a child who longs to be on the field (or the beam or the court) but just can’t, how do you manage their disappointment? Then there’s another factor—helping your child fill the fitness and social gaps. It’s a lot to work through. Here’s your parental playbook.

When Kids Get Injured Playing Sports

There’s not a question of whether Sloan Bellissimo can participate in her sport of choice, competitive cheerleading. She can’t, not for several more months. While cheering with Plano’s Cheer Athletics in fall 2018, Sloan broke a bone in her arm. In January 2019, she was cleared to return to the mat. The same day, she re-broke her arm. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.

“The third break happened last August,” sighs Sloan’s mom, Janeen Bellissimo. “She was stunting with her team, and they dropped her.”

During surgery, Sloan’s doctor discovered the bone had turned and never set correctly. The 13-year-old now has a plate and screws in her arm. “They said she would be out of cheerleading for a full year,” remembers Janeen.

Sloan did not take the news well. “She was very upset,” Janeen says. “This had been her life. She’s given up birthday parties and sleepovers and school activities because of cheer. To not have that anymore—it was hard.”

Erica Force is a sport psychologist, director of sport psychology at Georgetown University and adjunct faculty member with the University of North Texas’ Department of Psychology. She says that level of disappointment is not uncommon among athletes who can’t play their sport due to injury. In a vicious circle, these emotions can even impede recovery. “When it’s a longer rehab process, kids will lose motivation,” Force explains. “As a result, their progress in recovery will slow down. They get depressed.”

While Sloan’s depression, anger and other emotions were hard for Janeen to watch, she knows she can’t budge on the decision to take her daughter out of cheerleading for now. “As a mom, I’m holding my ground,” she says. “I can’t chance it again.”

The Advantages of Playing Multiple Sports

My young son is small for his age. In any sport, he would play against children who are significantly bigger. Brand me an overprotective mother, but the idea worries me. I had a serious sports-related injury as a child, and I don’t want my son in harm’s way. It hasn’t been a real issue yet, but I think it’s coming. Will I just have to get over my fears and let him play?

Dr. Tariq Hendawi—an orthopedic surgeon and team physician with the Texas Rangers—points out that one way or another, kids are going to play.

“If you tell them they can’t do football or soccer, they’re still going to play sports; they’re just going to do it at recess or on the street with their friends,” notes Hendawi, a father of two who practices with TMI Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery and is on staff at Medical City Arlington. “And they’re probably more at risk than playing an organized sport, because they don’t know the right techniques and their muscles aren’t as developed.”

Hendawi adds that in high-impact contact sports, there’s a significant amount of research going into how helmets and protective gear are designed, and rules take safety into higher consideration.

And if you are worried about injury, one answer may be more sports, not fewer. “The main thing we try to do—especially in patients who have not reached skeletal maturity or puberty—is recommend playing multiple sports,” says Hendawi. “One of the biggest issues now is overuse from playing the same sport, playing on multiple teams [for that sport] during the year.”

Besides helping the body develop fully, diversifying athletic interests can also help when your child has already suffered an injury. After leaving cheer, Sloan Bellissimo took up cross-country. “It’s definitely not the same, but it gave her something to do,” says Janeen. “I think that was the most important thing I could do as a mom—help fill that void.”

Force says Janeen has just the right idea. “You have to help your child know what’s out there beyond the sport they know,” she explains.

As a sport psychologist, Force works with injured athletes to improve their outcomes of returning to sports successfully. “It’s important not to get too down,” she says. “We want to sustain their motivation, set goals and help them learn skills like mindfulness and relaxation. They need to find helpful thoughts.”

Janeen says for Sloan, “talking—well, really listening” to her coaches (some of whom had also suffered injuries) was instrumental in finding her new normal. “And give them something they can control,” Janeen adds. “Support them in finding something else they can do, but it has to be their decision.”

Sloan will be right back to tumbling and stunting as soon as she is cleared. Bottom line, says Hendawi: You can’t keep your kid in a bubble. Injuries can and do happen. But he emphasizes that this doesn’t mean sports should be banned from your child’s life. “I will never tell a child he shouldn’t be active.”

Tips for Sports Parents

  • Take three months off annually from your child’s main sport and introduce other sports.
  • Allow adequate rest between periods of strenuous exertion. Playing fatigued increases the risk of injury.
  • Keep it fun! Talk about interests other than sports, and keep in mind that some of the best athletes don’t choose their primary sport until high school.

Illustration courtesy of iStock.