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Playing it safe: A checklist for parents

By Debra Alban
CNN

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Before beginning a sport, children should get a physical at the doctor's.

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Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

(CNN) -- Organized sports can be a great way for children to socialize and keep fit, but they are not all fun and games, health officials say. Participation carries the risk of physical injuries, and the pressure of competition can sometimes take a mental toll on children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 20 percent of emergency room visits stem from injuries suffered while participating in sports, recreation or exercise, and 40 percent of those visits involve children younger than 15.

Here are some guidelines you need to know before your son or daughter takes the field:

  • First, make sure your child wants to play the sport.
  • "Kids need to have ownership of the decisions they make," says Dr. Richard Ginsburg, a sports psychologist at Harvard medical school.

    Choosing a sport and deciding how long to stick with it should be the child's choice, because the sport loses its fun when motivation does not come from within, he says.

    Ginsburg, author of "Whose Game Is It, Anyway?: A Guide To Helping Your Child Get The Most From Sports, Organized By Age And Stage," says parents must also recognize the difference between healthy encouragement and pushing too hard so that they are more responsive to the child's mental needs.

  • Make sure your child can keep up with the physical and mental demands of the sport, suggests Dr. William O. Roberts, a former soccer coach and a family physician at the University of Minnesota.
  • Your child should undergo a physical before beginning a sport, according to Children's Hospital Boston. The exam can pinpoint your child's physical strengths and weaknesses, which might help steer him or her toward a particular sport.

    It might also reveal a condition in your child that you should prepare to deal with. For example, a 2004 study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that 75 percent of children with asthma were not prepared for an attack brought on by exercise.

    It is also important to know how competitive the sports league is, Roberts says. For example, is it the sort of league where everybody plays, or is it play-to-win?

    Additionally, if the physical challenge of the sport is more than the child can handle, it can place a pressure that may be too intense for some kids, Ginsburg says.

  • Find out if the coaches are certified in CPR and other types of first aid, recommends the National Athletic Trainers' Association. If not, parents should arrange for basic care at practices and games, Roberts says. In addition to a first aid kit, gather an up-to-date medical history for each player and contact numbers for parents, and prepare an emergency plan, the NATA says.
  • Know how your child's sports league handles environmental risks.The league should follow accepted guidelines for dealing with bad weather, Roberts says.
  • Make sure the setting is suitable for play. Playing on asphalt or concrete can be risky, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. The Little League suggests parents check playing fields before games and practices for holes, rocks and sticks.
  • Ensure children take water breaks.
  • Get the appropriate protective gear, and make sure your child wears it, says Dr. Jorge Gomez of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. The Nemours Foundation, which operates a number of children's health facilities and clinics across the country, according to its Web site, suggests using only equipment approved by the organization that presides over a given sport.
  • Encourage children to warm up before playing and cool down afterward. They should also sit out when they're in pain or too tired, health experts say.
  • Set a good example by practicing good sportsmanship. "Often it's the parents who take the losses harder than the kids," says Dr. Roland A. Carlstedt, a licensed psychologist, board-certified sport psychologist and chairman of the American Board of Sport Psychology.
  • And, finally, as Dr. Ginsburg advises, "Make sure the [kids] are having fun."

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