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Keeping Kids Safe on the Soccer Field

Girl playing soccerMadison, Wisconsin - Before it was Alison Brooks, UW Health sports medicine physician, it was Alison Brooks, North Carolina women's soccer player.

Dr. Brooks was part of three national championship teams, including two undefeated seasons, and played alongside the legendary Mia Hamm during her career with the Tar Heels from 1992-94.

Now, she specializes in pediatric and adolescent primary care sports medicine and provides medical coverage for the University of Wisconsin men's soccer team.

So who better to ask for some tips on keeping kids safe out on the pitch?

First, the good news: For the most part, Brooks doesn't see many serious soccer injuries from children in elementary school and into middle school.

"I think soccer, especially at that age, is a fun, safe, great sport for kids to participate in," she said, noting that kids can suffer bumps, bruises and turned ankles in pretty much any sport.

Brooks has treated more children - as young as 9 - for concussions stemming from soccer in recent years. However, she actually views that as a positive.

"It's not because I think it's a more dangerous sport. I think those injuries were probably happening before, but people just weren't recognizing them," Brooks said. "So it's great that we have more awareness.

"We certainly worry more about concussions in the older age groups, where they're bigger, stronger, faster and they're potentially colliding in the air. That's where heads collide with heads, and elbows collide with heads and, of course, collisions with the goalkeeper are not unheard of. So the bigger and stronger the athletes are when they get older, the higher mechanism there is for a more significant, acute injury."

For athletes 12 and older, UW Health and other providers offer ImPACT testing, which provides a baseline for doctors to look at as they assess when someone who suffers a concussion can return to competition.

"For parents who want to get their child baseline-tested, it's a great thing to do," Brooks said of the ImPACT test. "It certainly helps us at times with managing recovery and return to play. But it's just certainly one of the many tools that we use to try to decide when an athlete is recovered and is safe to return to play."

However, no such test exists for children under 12 - at least not yet. Brooks said a test for younger kids is in development, but isn't in clinical use. "It needs to be a completely different test, it needs to be more age appropriate," she said.

Boy drinking from water bottle during soccer gameBrooks' biggest piece of advice for parents of soccer players centers around hydration and nutrition. It turns out that your child's water bottle is just as important as his or her shinguards.

"Younger kids, we know, are more susceptible to heat-type injuries, and they don't necessarily show dehydration like adults would - meaning they don't necessarily ask you and tell you when they're thirsty like an adult might," Brooks said.

"Their body surface area is a little different and how they sweat is a little different until they physically mature, so it's really important to make sure they're well hydrated and have had a good meal before they play. … If you wait to ask kids if they're thirsty, sometimes it's too late."

A good, nutritious meal several hours before the game or practice will help, too, Brooks said. And if your child needs a little snack before pulling on his or her cleats, or even at halftime, make it a piece of fruit or a granola bar.

What about the ubiquitous snack of youth soccer teams? Brooks said there's a good reason orange slices are so popular.

"That's what I remember from my childhood," she said. "They're a great, quick, natural and healthy source of energy. ... I think orange slices are a perfect choice.

"I think especially for kids, there are all kinds of power gels and chews and all that kind of stuff available, but I really think Mother Nature's really provided most of what we need."

The same is true after the game, too. Brooks recommends you consider a very Wisconsin product for that role.

"There's been a lot of good research that one of the best recovery drinks is chocolate milk - and what kid doesn't like chocolate milk?" she said.

Brooks said that sports drinks, such as Gatorade or Powerade, are "all right for kids, although parents should understand that a lot of those are pretty high in sugar.

"I still think for the majority of younger kids, just water is the key essential. If parents want to use a sports drink ... maybe either water them down or get them put in smaller containers, because smaller kids don't need to drink a big bottle of Gatorade, that's a lot of sugar.

"There are other good ways to get fluids in with some electrolytes that doesn't involve all that sugar."


Date Published: 06/13/2013