Helping your athlete kids recover from injury the right way

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Early this summer, during her first week of preseason high school basketball practice, my oldest daughter broke the middle finger on her left hand. The fracture marked the end of seven sports-injury-free months for our family, a record. As a mom, I took comfort in knowing that there was nothing I could have done to prevent my kid from jamming her finger on a rebound, other than forbidding her to play. That felt like progress.

Didi, 15, along with her sister, 13, and brother, 14, have been involved in organized sports since kindergarten and racked up scores of injuries along the way. Black eyes and pinched nerves. Sprained ankles and pulled groins. Bruised bones and swollen joints. A dislocated shoulder. A torn eyelid. A torn ACL. At least one diagnosed concussion, though I suspect others were missed. For my husband and me, parenting three young athletes has served as a literal crash course in injury management and recovery.

According to a 2014 ESPN sports poll, more than 87 percent percent of parents worry about their child getting hurt while playing sports. My husband and I aren't sporty people. My three seasons of youth softball passed injury-free, probably because I spent 75 percent of my time on the bench. John's short Little League career proved equally safe and lackluster. We adopted our children, and while we've done our best to nurture their inherent physical talents, we didn't have personal experience to draw upon. That explains why, in the beginning, I didn't even know enough about the risks of youth sports to be nervous. I anticipated nothing more than the normal bumps and scrapes of an active childhood.

My perception started to shift when Didi was about 11 and she got hit in the face with the ball at soccer practice. The trainer (a former Division I player whom I later learned wasn't certified in sports medicine) didn't do much more than tell my daughter to stop crying. The next day Didi had two black eyes.

We moved to a new city not long after that, and our kids joined a well-organized soccer club. But after only a couple of months with her team, Didi dislocated her shoulder during her physical education class. She'd just turned 12, and the injury kept her off the pitch for five months. She attended physical therapy as the ER doctor advised, and I hired an older soccer player to give her some additional workouts before she returned to game play. But in hindsight, I recognize that I didn't take the steps needed to help her rebuild her overall fitness. When Didi was ready to begin practice again, she was rusty, and her coach wasn't happy.

I recently spoke with Craig Bennett, director of sports medicine at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and president of the Washington Athletic Trainers Association. He told me that one difference between youth and collegiate athletics is that serious college programs offer players a dedicated, knowledgeable sports medicine staff. In youth sports, it's the parents' job to identify qualified health care providers with expertise in both sports injuries and child development. You need to somehow build your own treatment team.

"You need a health care professional who understands that there must be a plan for returning to play," Bennett says. "If you heal and return to play without restrengthening, you are at risk for reinjury."

And that is exactly what happened. At the end of that painful season, Didi's club moved her to the B team for her age group. She handled the demotion with grace, played hard, and within a couple of months was invited to start training with the A team again. Then, during her first practice with her old teammates, she tore an ACL fighting for the ball. She hadn't yet turned 13.

I can't describe the anguish I felt watching my daughter suffer another injury, especially one so serious. This time, though, I networked to find the best doctor, a surgeon who'd repaired ACLs for NFL players and teenage girls. His plan for Didi's return to play involved physical therapy, personal training, and a conservative nine months of recovery.

Didi brought maturity and positivity to the struggle, emerging stronger than before. The physical therapy and athletic training addressed not only her post-surgical weakness, but also the individual quirks of her physiology that had predisposed her to injury, such as overly flexible joints. Today I don't worry about her tearing an ACL again or suffering another shoulder injury. Accidents will continue to happen, just like this summer's broken finger, but at least I have the peace of mind that comes from having educated myself and done all I can to protect her.

I've learned to accept that coaches aren't perfect, even the good ones. Sometimes they aren't qualified to assess a child's injury. And of course, doctors aren't perfect either. Dealing with youth sports injuries is complicated, and an otherwise excellent pediatrician likely will have no training in sports medicine at all.

"More specialized care immediately after a sports injury can help prevent lifelong problems," says Dr. Steven Anderson, founder of Seattle Pediatric Sports Medicine, an organization of medical professionals dedicated to education, collaboration and research in pediatric sports medicine. But "you will never have enough specialists." He and his colleagues are working to grow the organization's website as an educational resource for coaches, parents and doctors who might not otherwise have access to the latest information.

I feel lucky to have Dr. Anderson on my family's "treatment team." The certified athletic trainer who helped Didi after surgery now trains all three of my kids to help stave off injury. The kids grumble a little about the extra work, but just yesterday the trainer warned my son and me to monitor his foot for a possible stress fracture. I see the cost of her sessions as an investment.

People ask me why I don't pull my kids out of sports after all they've been through, but the answer is simple: They are athletes. To ask them not to compete would be like asking them to change who they are. So, I'm trying my best to be the mother they need, and I'm learning that a big part of that is teaching them how to heal.