The LiveScience headline that reads: With 2.5 Million Injuries, Youth Basketball is a Contact Sport, should be a warning to all coaches and parents alike that there are major risks that come with taking to the court. Most of these injuries are entirely preventable, however, with a little bit of knowledge and preparation. It is entirely possible to guide your entire team through the season safe and injury free.

Basketball Injuries, the Type and the Extent

There are over 1,000,000 high school basketball players, and many more playing in lower grades and youth leagues. This makes basketball one of the most popular youth sports in the United States. When players step onto the court, whether they are scrimmaging or playing a competitive game, they enter a world that involves physical contact. There are body slams, slips, twists and falls. A recent study looked at the number and the type of injuries that high school-age players experienced over six years and found that of the 2.5 million injuries that happened during that period, 1 million were treated court-side or in the locker-room. However, the other 1.5 million, the majority, were treated in emergency rooms.

The most common types of injuries that occur have been catalogued by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Department. They include:

  • Ankle sprains occur when the “foot is forcibly rolled inward or outward. This causes ligaments to stretch and/or tear.”
  • Achilles tendonitis occurs from force and overuse without proper stretching of the calf muscles. “The tendon attaches the calf muscle to the heel and allows the calf muscle to pull the heel off the ground to walk or run.” Players can also develop Sever’s disease where the tendon starts to pull away from the heel.
  • Patellar tendonitis occurs when the patellar tendon, which helps to straighten the knee, is strained and torn. The body tries to repair the tears, but cannot keep up with the repairs and the inflammation becomes significant and painful.
  • Muscle strains in basketball players can occur to almost any muscle and happen when they stretch or pull beyond capacity.
  • ACL tears are a very common knee injury that can occur without warning or prior injury when sudden strain is applied, usually due to deceleration, awkward lands, or sudden cut backs.
  • Finger injuries can range from cuts and breaks to jams to strains. They can result in serious bone, ligament and tendon injuries that can require surgery.

There are also incidents of concussion, head and face wounds, foot and leg breaks, bruising and other head and neck wounds that occur. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion can also cause serious, even life threatening, illness. Although these happen less they still occur in numbers significant enough to get the attention of the sports medicine and pediatric communities. (Source).

Preventing Injuries with Gear and Physical Preparation

The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine has a set of recommendations for preventing basketball injuries from occurring in the first place, as well as from becoming exacerbated due to further strain. Those recommendations include:

  • Every player should have a pre-season sports physical. If the doctor makes any recommendations they should be followed.
  • Players should make sure that they stay sufficiently hydrated and consume a diet with enough calories and nutrients to support the energy level that they are exerting.
  • If playing or practicing outside, it is important to pay attention to heat, humidity and pollution warnings.
  • Athletes need to maintain their physical fitness and flexibility with regular exercise and stretching. If there has been a period of inactivity since the last time a player was expected to perform athletically it is important to progress towards peak activity in slow and incremental training steps.
  • Be careful to not overuse your body. Some “sports medicine specialists believe it is beneficial to take at least one season off each year” rather than over training. Paying attention to pain and discomfort will help prevent both injury and burnout.
  • Work with the athletic trainer or director or team doctor to set up an ACL injury prevention program and incorporate specific exercises into the team’s training.
  • If an injury does occur don’t let the player return to practice or the game without specific clearance from a health care provider.

The University of Rochester Medical Center has some additional recommendations that include:

  • Wearing protective gear
  • Following the rules
  • Creating a safe court
  • Grouping kids by size

Additionally, it is important to make sure that shoes and clothing are appropriate and fit well for safety.

Playing a Safer Game

In addition to following the recommendations of the experts, you can specifically create a team environment that recognizes and rewards the benefits of being safe. One of the simplest ways to do this is to incorporate conversations about safety and safety rules into your teams’ culture. Make safety a priority. Do equipment and gear checks. Encourage safe play. Challenge the team to get through practices without injury and games without injuries and reward them when they accomplish this.

With every drill and exercise that you put the team through, and every play that you teach them (you can find all you need through Hustle Fitness) talk through how to make it safer and then have them practice the safest way to make it successful.

While this may in the short run slow down progress, over the long haul it will help you develop better players and a more cohesive team that gets through the season without a high level of risk of losing your players due to season-ending injuries.