Children's recreational sports are growing more competitive than ever, and with that can come big injuries.
A first-of-its-kind study on children ages 5 to 11 who play recreational sports has found that concussions are the most common injury in this age group.
High school, college and professional athletes are closely studied. But far less research has been done on how often younger kids get injured, said lead study author Karen Liller, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
"We had heard people say well, children that age are too young, they are too small, they really don't get hurt when they play sports, they surely don't have concussions," Liller said.
"And one of the things that we found in this research was they do indeed get injured and they do indeed get concussions."
The study involved 1,500 children, girls and boys, playing recreational football, soccer, baseball and softball in Hillsborough County, in leagues not organized by schools. Over the two years of the study, researchers documented a total of 26 injuries.
"Now these injuries -- what you have to understand is they are just not just falling or having a scraped knee. This would be an injury where it was serious enough so that the child could not return to practice or play for at least a day. They had to be seen by a medical professional,” said Liller.
Liller and her team documented fractures, heat injuries and dental injuries.
“I think what was surprising for us was not so much that we saw some of these injuries. I think what was interesting about it was that nearly half of these injuries were actually concussions,” she said.
In the first year of the study, football seemed to be the sport with the greatest injuries. But in the second year of the study, it was soccer.
While the study indicated children are getting hurt less frequently and less severely than adult or professional league athletes, Liller said that might not be a fair comparison to make.
"I don't think it is good to compare it, if you will, to high school and collegiate (sports) because that is totally different the level of play, how strong they are as they get older," Liller said. "It's sort of a different game if you will. But you know, they are still there."
Children's sports are becoming more competitive, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that a "win at all costs" mentality - increasingly seen these days among parents and coaches - can exacerbate the risk of injuries in kids. Liller too warns against it.
"And while a goal is to win, I think that especially in sports and especially with children this age, that really the goal should be more about learning to collaborate, learning about teamwork, learning to have fun. Learning to do a sport but to do it safely,” she said.
“We don’t want to wrap children in a cocoon, obviously. We want children to play sports. We just want children to play sports and be safe.”
Liller recommends that youth leagues have a certified athletic trainer on hand if at all possible. They can help treat injuries on the scene. If costs are a concern, she recommends teaming with a local college or university, to give some work experience to student athletic trainers.
That could be helpful, she says, because injuries are expected to climb.
“Children now in elementary school playing, they are as strong as children they used to see in middle school. And so because they are training and their strength levels have increased I think what you are going to see in the future is more and more of these injuries happening."