Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and more American kids are playing it than ever. At last count, about three million children were playing in organized soccer in 2014, with more enrolled in leagues than in any other youth sport.

Fans of soccer — known as football outside the United States — call it “the beautiful game,” a name made popular by the great Brazilian soccer star Pelé and others. Playing this exciting, fast-paced sport not only keeps kids fit, but also helps them learn teamwork and make friends on and off the field.

But with more youngsters playing the game, soccer injuries are on the rise. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that there are about 200,000 soccer-related injuries annually among kids ages 5 to 18.

Common soccer injuries

Soccer parents are already familiar with the routine: A kid is hurt. The referee stops the game. The players drop down on one knee as the coach attends to the injured. This time it is an ankle strain. Next time it could be a twisted knee, or something worse — a concussion.

As in any contact sport, kicks, falls and collisions between players can lead to injuries, including cuts and bruises. Common soccer injuries include:

  • Ankle sprains
  • Shin splints
  • Swollen knees from overstretched tendons
  • Muscle strains in the legs or groin
  • Sprains, with tears in the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) among the most serious
  • Concussions

In fact, collision injuries in soccer surpass those of basketball, hockey and lacrosse, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Most injuries are minor, but concussions and ligament tears are serious and need to be treated right away.

Ways to keep your little player safe

Any contact sport involves risk. But here are some steps parents can take to lower it.

Girls in soccer circle promoting fun and teamwork

Find the right league. Start by researching the league organization you plan to register your child with. Kids should play with other kids of equal size, ability and age. Ask league officials how many and which kinds of injuries were reported in the previous season. Does the league play on good quality, level fields? These reduce foot and leg injuries. (If fields are mined with gopher holes or otherwise unsafe, contact your regional safety director at the American Youth Soccer Organization or AYOC.) What are the protocols for dealing with injuries, and most important, the policy on head injuries? Are the goalposts properly padded and secured for play? Is there a league-wide, fair play policy for all teams?

A typical fair play policy will promote good sportsmanship and help prevent conflicts and fights by forbidding harassment, loud criticism or verbal abuse of coaches, players and referees. It should also prohibit players from “trash talk,” boasting, taunting opponents or protesting fouls for infractions such as including tripping, pushing or kicking another player.

Girls in soccer circle promoting teamwork (Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

Look for the right coach. Good coaching means more fun and less hurt. A league with quality coaches not only teaches kids how to play soccer well but how to be disciplined while playing. Injuries are more likely to occur when players are reckless. Players should be instructed on the difference between fair play and rough play. Does the team coach teach this? Avoid teams with coaches who encourage players to play rough.

“Safety issues tend to arise as players approach their teen years,” says Mike Woitalla, executive director of Soccer America and a youth coach and referee. “The most dangerous scenarios come from reckless tacklers. Coaches are responsible for reining in such players and should not object to referees who call fouls on their players.”

Learn about the conditioning routine. Kids who are properly trained to play lessen their chances of injury. Research has also shown that proper conditioning — including balance, strength and speed drills — can help prevent serious knee injuries such as an ACL tear. Does the coach seem knowledgable on the topic?

Related: Girls in Sports: Is Your Daughter at Risk For a Knee Injury?

Look for common-sense safety measures. Does the coach conduct warm-ups and cool-downs before and after games and practices? Are the kids well hydrated? 

Make sure your youngster is suited up properly. Records from soccer tournaments suggest that the majority of lower leg injuries stem from inadequate shin guards, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Worn with soccer socks, good shin guards should fit like a glove around the ankle bone and shin and end just below the knee. Soccer safety experts also recommend shoes with cleats to protect against slips and falls, as well as mouth guards to protect the lips, cheeks and teeth and long shirts and pants for goalies. Kids should always wear shin guards and other protective equipment, even when they’re only practicing. If the field is wet, the AAOS advises using a synthetic ball that doesn’t absorb water — a leather ball may get too heavy and cause injuries.

Related: Getting Ahead of Concussions

Ask about the “heading” policy. In professional soccer, players head balls that are traveling at 100 kilometers an hour. The speeds are not as high in youth soccer, but some research suggests that improper ball heading can cause brain injuries such as concussions. (The potential risk has led to a call for helmets in soccer from some quarters). The American Youth Soccer Organization recommends a “no heading” rule for players under 10, while the Sports Legacy Institute calls for no heading for players under 14 (unless they are practicing heading with a beach ball.)

There is still controversy about the impact of “heading” on the brain, however. The Sports Legacy Institute, co-founded by Boston professor of neurosurgery Robert Cantu, MD, insists there is solid evidence that heading the ball contributes to problems of nerve degeneration in the brain. But a 2014 book on sports-related concussions from the National Academies Press said recent studies have found no effect on cognitive or academic performance in youth soccer players, and a recent California lawsuit to restrict heading was dismissed due to the judge’s “grave concerns” over contradictory evidence. Experts do agree, however, that all players who head the ball should be taught proper techniques for doing so.

Young soccer player in actionTake concussions seriously. Any player who suffers a head collision should be withdrawn from the game immediately and should not return until cleared by a medical professional, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An injured player with a concussion may report nausea, double vision, headache and sensitivity to light, but if not, look out for other signs, including confusion, unusual clumsiness, slow speech in answering questions, memory problems and changes in mood and behavior. Some changes in behavior or mood, such as persistent irritability or frustration, may show up later or linger for weeks.

Watch kids around the goal posts. Never let your kids climb, pull on or lean on the net or goal posts. The posts are heavy and often made of metal, and they could cause serious injury or worse if they fall over and hit someone.

Related: Signs That “Sprain” Might Be Something More Serious

Don’t pressure your little player. It’s frightful seeing moms and dads screaming on the sidelines, whether against the referee’s calls or on-field plays. Things can get out of hand quickly, and it creates an unsafe playing environment.

“One important way to keep soccer as safe as possible is to ban all screaming from the sidelines from coaches and parents,” says Woitalla. “This ramps up the intensity and can encourage players to make reckless tackles they would otherwise avoid.”

Young soccer player in action (Photo: Digital Media Pro/Shutterstock)

Alan Black is a soccer writer and author and a former children’s soccer coach in northern California. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post and other publications.