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The Dangers of Sport

Four-year-old is the kind of child who jumps, tumbles and slides whenever -- and wherever -- possible. He's gone through phases of only brushing his teeth while doing a headstand on a couch and performing jumping somersaults off the couch onto the hard-wood floor. That's when I first coughed up big bucks enrolled him in gymnastics. Somersaulting on mats seems a lot safer than wood.

After a summer break from the sport, he proceeded to try to master the monkey bars without help at a playground. He climbed on up as soon as I turned my back (and after I told him not to, of course). Next thing I knew, he'd chipped a tooth and cut deep into his tongue after falling off. And so, back to gymnastics classes he went.

Apparently, he's far from alone in his injury from the sport. Gymnastics has one of the highest injury rates of all girls' sports, according to a study released in the journal Pediatrics this week. The study looked at data on children between the ages of 6 and 17 who were treated at emergency rooms over a 15-year period. It found that, on average, 26,600 injuries were reported annually. That puts gymnastics on par with ice hockey in terms of catastrophic injuries. Other sports with high injury rates? Cheerleading, soccer and basketball, the study's authors report.

About 82 percent of the injuries happen to girls versus boys between the ages of 6 and 17. Most of the injuries were strains, sprains, fractures and dislocations. To prevent injuries, teach your child to fall correctly and land safely. Plus, properly trained spotters are key.

Do you weigh the dangers of a sport before letting your children participate? What injuries have your kids sustained and how?

Sleep Update: In November, we discussed kids' sleep needs and a potential link between sleep and obesity in children. Well, sleep and kids is back in the news. This time, the study is one out of Harvard -- also published in Pediatrics -- and it found that babies who sleep less than 12 hours a day have a higher chance of being obese. Because the families in the study were all relatively well off financially and had high education levels, the study's lead author acknowledges that its conclusions would be difficult to apply to everyone.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  April 9, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Teens , Tweens
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I was a (not stellar) gymnast up until I was 14, when I had a very bad fall off the bars onto an improperly matted floor and ended up with a back injury that still causes me pain on and off. I was also being an idiotic teenager and attempting a move that was way too hard for me, with only my friend as a spotter.

My parents pulled me out at that point (due both to their worry, and to my stupidity) and I took up swimming instead (which helped my back).

So... would I put my son in gymnastics? Yes, I would - but I will be vigilant about the safety precautions used. And if he does anything that stupid, he's out.

Posted by: Shandra | April 9, 2008 8:25 AM | Report abuse

This column really hits home for me. My daughter fell on the tramp (not off, on but just at a bad angle) in gymnastics class and broke both the bones in her lower arm. She had stretched well and they had told them not to put their arms down to break their fall but she just reacted. The bones were not aligned so it required surgery; she had pins inserted into both bones. She was in a cast for 3 months and now has a custom-made brace to wear to protect for soccer and running club b/c the risk of re-fracture after this type of injury is very high. The ortho doc told me gymnastics brings in more kids than any other sport in his opinion. She's not allowed to go back to gymnastics for another 3 months which is fine with me.

I did think about the possible injury factor when I enrolled her in gymnastics but she is at a good gym and really loves it. She was doing it with a good friend and trying to make the pre-team (b/c her friend is quite good and she went up to pre-team and they want to be together).

Now, we're encouraging her to focus on soccer. In addition to the injury-factor for gymnastics, her 6 month hiatus may mess up the timing for her on making pre-team, which was a long shot anyway. Plus, even if you are on a team gymnastics is primarily an individual sport and she loves the team-aspect of soccer. Of course, she can fall in soccer, twist an ankle, etc. Nothing is risk free. Kids fall; they get hurt. But, since we've been once burned with gymnastics we are gently trying to encourage her to shift to other sports. At the end of the day all we really want is for her to have fun playing sports, to get some exercise and meet some friends. But, we do want to keep her out of the hospital if we can!

Posted by: Pt Fed Mof2 | April 9, 2008 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Interesting, we have not thought about the injury factor but our oldest (soccer playing, swimming 5yo) is super cautious. We are more in toughen her up mode. ;) But my mom was on a first name basis with the ER docs near our house when I was a kid. Some critters are just risk takers! I saw that article abt gymnastics, and I myself had injuries playing soccer competitively as a kid. I guess it's the part of me that so loved the teams I played with and the amazing determination sports can breed in a person (in a good way) that make me a Polyanna about the positive influence of sports. Eating disorders aside....

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | April 9, 2008 8:43 AM | Report abuse

"Interesting, we have not thought about the injury factor ..."


"I guess it's the part of me that so loved the teams I played with and the amazing determination sports can breed in a person (in a good way) that make me a Polyanna about the positive influence of sports. Eating disorders aside...."

What a nitwit!

Posted by: Nitwit Police | April 9, 2008 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Yes, I worry about the potential for injury -- I'm mom, it's what I do. But focusing on emergency room visits doesn't give the whole story. Any athlete, in any sport, will get hurt. You can't just say, oops, soccer is bad on girls' knees, so I'll tell my daughter to play softball so she won't get hurt. I played softball -- yes, I did avoid the emergency room, but there were times after games where I had all four limbs either in an ice bath or wrapped in a heating pad -- at once. There's no "safe" sport.

All you can do is weigh the risk of injury (both how likely and how serious) against the benefits of the sport: the health benefits, the fun of learning something new, the good feeling of building a strong body, the comradeship of being on a team, the challenge of competition, building the habit of an active lifestyle -- and, most importantly, is this something they really enjoy and want to do?

Might I try to steer my kids away from sports with a higher risk of more catastrophic injury? Possibly. But if they love it and it suits them, then I'll let them play, and as Shandra says, focus on making sure the safety standards are appropriate (are they taught proper form, are they properly supervised, is the equipment in good shape, etc.).

Posted by: Laura | April 9, 2008 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I got injured doing ballet (!) as a kid. Everything is risky. I think it's important for parents to be educated about best practices and make sure the kids have coaches who know what they are doing; that said, how in the world do you do that? If my kids wanted to play soccer I wouldn't have the first idea what makes a good soccer coach. How do you know that your kids are getting trained/coached well? I mean I'd know it for ballet but God help me if it's a sport that involves a ball.

Posted by: tsp 2007 | April 9, 2008 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Nitwit Police has the easiest and most well-paid job.

Job description: Just tell everyone else that their opinions are stupid because they aren't the same as yours.

Salary: Feeling of supriority only brought on by being right all the time.

Posted by: Police Police | April 9, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

If sports near you(especially gymnastics) are anything like they are here, I can't imagine how you avoid thinking about the potential risk. The liability form I had to sign for my dausghter's preschool gymanstics class was quite detailed! My oldest dances 4 nights a week and hasn't suffered more than a few sore muscles, she has however sprained an ankle, gotten a concussion, split her chin and gotten a black eye at recess. I swear I get at least one phone call a week from the school nurse b/c she walked into a wall or something. Some kids are just prone to accidents (I also think she likes the nurse). Usually when I sign one of the kids up for something I just want to know that the kids are well supervised and that adequate safety precautions are taken. Even with that it is impossible to avoid all injuries.

Posted by: Momof5 | April 9, 2008 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Current Moxiehouse sports rules:
For the boy: NO

That leaves:

For the girl: NO
Cheerleading or any sport in which her appearance is a factor in how her performance is evaluated.

That leaves:
Softball (still don't get why girls don't play baseball? anyone?)
Field Hockey

My main problem with the banned sports is that a devotion to those can not just lead to injuries but injuries that last a lifetime. I have many friends who were in gymnastics or football (guys mostly) who were competitive, but not professional level, who now, in their late 30's have knee, back and weight problems (both too much and too little) directly correltated to their participation in these sports as a child through college.

My daughter loves dance and I'm on the fence with that for now mainly due to the potential for long lasting joint problems and the intense focus on appearance and weight. The challenge is that it seems nothing can be done casually anymore, evey endeavor must be taken to the nth degree. Even if you want you child to play recreationally, the places where they can just practice once a week and play a game on Saturday get fewer and fewer as they get older. It is the same for dance as well. Can't just do one ballet class, must do 5 classes a week. blech. We'll see how the moxiefamily evolves as they get older, but this is where we are now.

Posted by: Moxiemom | April 9, 2008 9:19 AM | Report abuse

So is gymnastics "dangerous" or are there more kids like Stacey's in there who are prone to injury?

Posted by: Arlington Dad | April 9, 2008 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I saw this about gynmastics on TV the other day. I went to gynmastics as a kid until I was around 10 when I realized how much I lacked talent and went to go play soccer. I think that gymnastics is probably much more dangerous when you are doing it as competition. If you are just going once a week and trying to do cartwheels, I find it hard to believe there are as many chances for injury as when you do some of the trickier and more challenging moves. Of course good supervision is a must, but I know I never got hurt once and it was fun to get my sticker when I mastered a new move.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Police Police

"Salary: Feeling of supriority only brought on by being right all the time."

Spelling Police!

Posted by: Nitwit Police | April 9, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Arlington Dad

"So is gymnastics "dangerous" or are there more kids like Stacey's in there who are prone to injury?"

Yes. Stacey's kid who played with his privates while sucking his thumb 24/7 is in the "high risk" category AKA "Natural Selection".

Posted by: Jake | April 9, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Moxiemom: my husband (in his late 30s) has had three major knee surgeries (all torn ACLs) from college & post-college soccer & will probably wind up with knee replacements when he's older. So it's not just your list of "banned" sports that can cause lifelong injuries. I was a very competitive ballet dancer until college (I was put en pointe at the age of 9) and have terrible ankles & feet as a result. Just something to think about.

Posted by: PLS | April 9, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

"My oldest dances 4 nights a week and hasn't suffered more than a few sore muscles, she has however sprained an ankle, gotten a concussion, split her chin and gotten a black eye at recess."

Hah! Me:

2 yrs of college volleyball, 4 yrs of college softball -- ER visits: none.

Playing frisbee in yard after class -- ER visits: one (broken foot from running into tree).

Posted by: Laura | April 9, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

In the USA the correct term is "Sports." The term "Sport" in "Dangers of Sport" refers to something ENTIRELY different.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The dangers of obesity and a lifetime of sloth far outweight the dangers of participating in sports. I'll take my chances on the occasional injury to instill a love of activity rather than have my children safe and protected on the sofa for hours a day. The emphasis on safety is paralyzing for this generation of parents.

Posted by: Sanity Police | April 9, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

My child is not old enough to be involved in sports yet, but I'll give you my nieces' stats.

Oldest (Girl)- Swimming, Basketball, Gymnastics, Soccer, Majorettes
Injuries- Stitches after wrecking her bike while riding with her Brownie Troop

Youngest(Girl)- Gymnastics, Soccer, Ballet, Majorettes

Injuries- hm... really can't think of any

Side note: They are both straight A students. Oldest is in the advanced classes, and youngest will be starting them next fall. Both are begging mom to play softball too, but she is running out of days in the week.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

to Sanity Police--there's a difference between being paralyzed by fear and wanting your kid to get good training and good coaching (which includes injury prevention). Although I did get injured doing ballet, I also had really good teachers which helped me to correct my techniques to prevent more injury and helps me to this day. Which is why I think good coaching is so important.

Posted by: tsp 2007 | April 9, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse


Do your friends with the lingering injuries regret their choices? Some activities allow for such benefit, that the increased risk of injury is worth it.

Posted by: J | April 9, 2008 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm, seems like I'm in the minority on this - I too have friends who try to ban their kids from playing sports. Nitwit or not, I am much more concerned with allowing my child to experience the camaraderie of teams, and situations in which you both rely on others and have to dig deep inside yourself to find strength and courage such as you won't find in many other areas of life, than with whether or not she gets bumps and bruises. Or torn ligaments, in my personal case (repeatedly, in my ankles, and worth it. acl surgery for my DH, worth it). I *am* very concerned about sports that tend to emphasize unhealthy body images for girls. But really, though, this is a pretty fascinating discussion for me since my DD's just 5 and we haven't seen *anything* hard core yet. Her dance and soccer are completely kumbaya lovefests -- ie not at all competitive, great coaches...

Thanks Stacey for an interesting post as usual.

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | April 9, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

You can't protect your children from everything. If they play then they need to follow safety rules -mouth guards, proper equipment, and follow the rules.

I think casual play and injuries are different from these over-use problems. If a child is so much into a sport that they have over-use injuries then they are in need of professional guidance to be sure they're cross-training.

Posted by: RoseG | April 9, 2008 12:49 PM | Report abuse

There are more injuries in basketball than there are in football. Basketball can be very physical and aggressive, but the kids have no padding. If I had more time I'd find the study, but lunch is over...

All the same, I'd prefer my kid not be a running back. Those guys get tackled on almost every play! I'll encourage him to be a kicker.

Posted by: RiverCityRoller | April 9, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Husband and I both played and play lots of sports (he is a gifted athlete, I am not). We will encourage our kids to play sports for all the positives (exercise, determination, team work, etc.) and try to avoid the negatives, like over competitive coaches and players. We expect and will deal with injuries. But regardless of the sport, the adults I know with lasting injuries from childhood/teen sports are the ones who were very good. Not necessarily the college athletes, but the kids who focused on one sport year-round and played on club and school teams. Such intensity when you're growing can be very bad on the body, even if you don't suffer a specific injury while playing. We aren't meant to swing a racket for five hours each day at age 14 (or any age). I think parents should encourage kids to play the sports they kids like and have an interest in, but keep watch when the kids get too committed and the sport takes over his or her life. that's when the injury risk goes way up -- even for non-contact sports.

Posted by: New mom | April 9, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

has anybody read the book written by the woman who was crippled by a mysterious illness brought on by excessive piano playing? the title of the book is limbo. she would play piano for hours and would then have to ice her arms down because of the pain. what finally happened to the author was the she eventually couldn't walk & had to use a wheelchair. the point is that even the most seemingly innocent activity can trigger injuries.
are we helicopter parents for not allowing our children to enjoy the seemingly innocent activities of childhood like sports or are we negligent if our children injure themselves?

Posted by: quark | April 9, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

"are we helicopter parents for not allowing our children to enjoy the seemingly innocent activities of childhood like sports or are we negligent if our children injure themselves?"

I don't know -- but I still told my dad to get my daughter a baseball mitt and bat for her upcoming birthday. :-)

Although at this point, I am the one in more imminent danger. . . .

Posted by: Laura | April 9, 2008 1:59 PM | Report abuse

We play soccer and one time we were practicing next to a group of six year olds. We were having fun and one of their kids said that looks like fun. The coach yelled at the kid, "Soccer is for sissies". I knew right then, my child would never be exposed to that kind of stupidity.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

The coach was coaching football, btw.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I agree with other posters: every sport has risks but all are worthwhile for the exercise and camaraderie.
My daughter is on the swim team (injuries: few but has been kicked hard by a teammate passing by during breast stroke laps, bruises heal) and she rides (injuries: thrown from horse resulting in lots of little scabs all over her face, big bruise on her side, and a wounded ego, plus the sore toes which are caused by a large animal stepping on your feet). I cringe inwardly whenever she goes over a jump but I never tell her I'm nervous. Her coach says that you have to fall off a horse at least 100 times before you can be considered a great rider. We have 98 more falls to go.

Posted by: 21117 | April 9, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Golly, I love sports and I'm totally into my kids being active and getting all of the benefits sports and teams have to offer. I do think there can be downsides and our efforts have been to try to mitigate the downsides that may have lifelong effects. I have no problem with sprains, and stiches which I think are part of life, but I would like to do what I can to steer them away from something that is more likely to affect them forever. My 2 cents.

Posted by: Moxiemom | April 9, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I guess I'm concerned in the sense I want to protect my child from as much as I can. But, I'm not about to dictate whether and which sports my kid can play. I can get just as hurt walking down the hall and slipping and falling as playing sports. There are also a lot of other factors: how competitive is the level they are playing, are they naturally accident prone, how in shape are they, etc.

Also, to the person who pointed it out: what is the problem with cheerleading? I assure you that I've known athletes in the sports you've identified as acceptable who also have problematic body images. And, competitive cheerlading involves quite a bit of athleticism. (yes, I realize the skirts . . . trying jumping around, being tossed and doing the gymnastics they do wearing more than that . . . ) The sort of "good" "bad" labels you've laid out for the various sports seems strange.

Posted by: Jen | April 9, 2008 2:53 PM | Report abuse

" And, competitive cheerlading involves quite a bit of athleticism. (yes, I realize the skirts . . . trying jumping around, being tossed and doing the gymnastics they do wearing more than that . . . ) The sort of "good" "bad" labels you've laid out for the various sports seems strange."

You have to realize cheerleading offends the PC feminist crowd here. Just the lay of the land here.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Moxie- be careful about dancing and ballet, they like to encourage people to wear pretty costumes and you wouldn't want her feeling good about how she looks.

Why the total BAN on sports just because looks are a part of it? Cheerleading is a sport and it doesn't matter how good you look, if you can't do it, you won't make it.

It's ok to be proud and enjoy some things about yourself but not others? Is she not allowed to wear pretty clothes and be complimented on her looks at all?

You can appreciate how you look and enjoy it WITHOUT it becoming your whole value system. We're visual beings, not having that part of how you assess and create yourself in the world seems quite shortsighted.

Posted by: Liz D | April 9, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

There's also the amusement that you have something against the GIRL not doing things for her looks, but not the BOY. And dividing sports by sex? Yeah, real modern of you.

Posted by: Liz D | April 9, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

"Cheerleading is a sport and it doesn't matter how good you look, if you can't do it, you won't make it."

But if you don't look good, or you have any compassion for other human beings, you'll never make the squad.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Looking good? Maybe, but that's ok for me, since it's part of the job.

No compassion for others? I can say I've known quite a few cheerleaders who broke that mold.

Posted by: Liz D | April 9, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

i guess the problem i have with cheerleading is that while i agree it can be just as tough as dance or gymnastics i'm betting that the ugly girl with the pizza sized zits and the unibrow won't make the cheerleading team no matter how good she is where she might if she were in other sports. it the emphasis on looks as well as skill. i could be wrong.

Posted by: quark | April 9, 2008 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Quark, I will agree with you.

I don't know what guidelines are used to keep or cut cheerleaders, but with few exceptions, all the cheerleaders at my junior high and high school fit one single ethnic and hair color. The Pom squad and dance squads were multiethnic, but woe was the brown-haired girl who wanted to cheer- dye it and diet and you might make it...

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

"But if you don't look good, or you have any compassion for other human beings, you'll never make the squad."

Umm, sorry you didn't make the squad in high school........ pretty obvious

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Why are people not happy that a particular sport also includes physical standards requirements? Lots of jobs in the world are based on primarily physical attributes, and almost all of them require a dress code and some standard of physical presence to maintain.

And no one is suggesting so far that cheerleading or such standards shouldn't exist.

Posted by: Liz D | April 9, 2008 5:12 PM | Report abuse

lizd - it depends on whether looks are more important than the skills required. don't get all pi$$y about "we don't understand that cheerleading is tough". because those "physical standards requirements" are not skill based. like i said, the big ugly girl with the unibrow could never be a cheerleader no matter how well she met all the other physical standards requirement. she might even be better at the skills than that pretty perky petit blond but because she is not a pretty perky petit blond she will never make the cheerleading squad.

Posted by: quark | April 10, 2008 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I'm not particularly athletic and I'm pretty timid when it comes to physical risks but I don't think I would limit my children's activities based on MY fears.

So far, 10 year old DD has done dancing (didn't like), horseback riding (LOVES), and diving (I wonder where that falls on Moxie's list - DD first jump off the board at 4). When she was 5, she had a day of bareback riding where she fell off as soon as the horse started moving. She got back on and the lesson went on. Last summer when DD first learned how to do the front flip in dive, she smacked her back countless times. She still can't do the front flip without some smacking but now she tends to hit her bottom rather than back. She hasn't suffered any serious injuries but she's had some near-misses.

As for appearance, well, in both sports appearance DOES matter. It's not the main factor but it is a factor.

Posted by: slacker mom | April 11, 2008 12:36 PM | Report abuse

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