Second in a series on the relationship between young athletes, health and injury.
By Hannah Johnson
Kathryn Krueger makes no bones about it: Soccer was her life—until, in a flash, it wasn’t.
She was a freshman on the Franklin High School varsity team, playing a tough opponent. She leapt into the air, aiming her forehead at the ball—just as an opposing player did the same. In the air, they knocked knees and, as she hit the ground, she heard the sound no athlete ever wants to hear—the crack of something gone excruciatingly wrong.
Krueger, now a senior at Franklin in Reisterstown, had torn her anterior cruciate ligament. Over her four seasons, Krueger has torn her ACL not once, not twice, but three times—two full tears and a partial tear, to be precise. That first time, though, was the worst.
“I knew I was not going to be able to play soccer for a while,” she said. “I just knew.”
Krueger is not alone. The number of high school students playing sports has increased each year for more than 20 years up to 2014 for boys and 2015 for girls (the number went down slightly for boys in 2015), according to the National Federation of High School Associations, which produces a national athletics participation survey each school year. Last year’s total was close to 8 million kids.
As participation increases, so do sports-related injuries. A report from Safe Kids Worldwide, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting kids from unintentional injuries, found that 1.35 million kids were taken to the emergency room with serious sports-related injuries in 2012. However, it’s not just the number of kids playing sports, but the way they’re playing as well that can cause injury, according to Dr. R. Jay Lee, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Lee, who specializes in the care of young athletes, generally ages 8 to 16, said that there is a tendency these days for students to concentrate on one sport almost exclusively and from an early age, meaning they’re often playing just one sport year-round. According to him, this is not good news.
“Young kids who play a sport year-round are sustaining more injuries,” he explained.
Without the chance to exercise different muscles and rest the ones being used over and over again, kids run a much higher risk for overuse injuries. Playing more than one sport essentially gives the body a cross-training approach.
At the very least, kids need time to recover and time to be kids, he added. There’s no definitive way to prevent injuries, but Lee recommends that parents ensure their kids are getting enough rest, eating healthy and staying hydrated.
Additionally, Lee said, kids are constantly growing and their bodies are changing, which makes warming up and stretching very important. Using proper technique and equipment also makes a big difference.
“It’s important to make sure [kids] are participating in a healthy way,” Lee said.
Michael Sye, the athletic coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools, has also noticed this trend. In his preseason meeting with the coaches from each sport, Sye said he stresses the importance of encouragement not just in each coach’s own sport but in others as well, in the hopes of inspiring students to try new sports—and thus broaden their horizons.
“I would like to see it actually get back to kids playing multiple sports,” he said.
Sye said the school system has a number of protocols in place to lower the risk of injuries. Of 24 high schools in Baltimore County, about half have trainers on site. Sports that are more contact-heavy, like football, are required to have trainers or EMTs at games. The coaches for every sport also have been trained as first responders.
In recent years, concussions—and their consequences—have garnered the lion’s share of attention in discussions of safety in scholastic sports, paralleling the subject’s dominance in conversations about safety in professional sports. The Safe Kids Worldwide report found that 12 percent of emergency room visits involved a concussion, and nearly half of those—47 percent—were in kids aged 12 to 15.
In fact, Maryland passed a law five years ago to address this issue, mandating new protocols for dealing with concussions in youth athletes. Any player who is suspected of having sustained a concussion is removed from practice or the game and can only return when cleared by a health care professional. Even then, the player is usually eased slowly back into full play. The law also called for concussion awareness programs for coaches, schools, athletes and parents.
The guidelines are still relatively new, but Sye said he thinks they’re making a difference in reducing injury. A sports doctor also speaks to all the coaches at the beginning of the year.
To Sye, one of the best things a coach can do is form good relationships with players. That way, when a student is injured, she will be willing to acknowledge and talk about it, and a coach can recognize when that player seems off.
As for Krueger, she found the silver lining in her injuries. In the days after her operation, she often found herself at loose ends— the recovery period for a torn ACL is usually six to eight months. She had been playing soccer since she was 5 years old; now, she had to wear a brace and use crutches.
“Emotionally, it was really tough on me,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Eventually, she had an epiphany: She didn’t have to be defined by her sport—or her injury. So, she branched out. She joined theater—she assisted with costumes for Franklin’s production of The Little Mermaid—and became involved in student government.
“I understood that soccer wasn’t the only thing that defined me,” she said. “I had so many other passions.”
Krueger is thankful she got to play a full season this year, her last year of high school. She may have taken up other extracurricular activities, but she’ll always have a connection to soccer.
“I actually broke down in tears the last game—I was just so happy,” she said.
She is headed to Franklin and Marshall College in the fall, and thinking about majoring in political science. She hasn’t decided if she’ll play soccer for the school, but hasn’t ruled it out. Ultimately, even after the injuries and difficulties, she can’t seem to stay away. BC