Some suggestions for safer soccer

Soccer is the #1 sport in the world. It’s easy to pick up and start playing anywhere. All you need is a ball and a flat piece of land—and game’s on, right?

But wait. Because of its popularity, fast pace and aggressive nature, youth soccer results in around 150,000 serious injuries each year.[1]

Cheryl Warren, MD, Family Practitioner – Salado Family Medicine Clinic—and local soccer trainer and referee—cites the most common youth soccer injuries:

  • Head injuries
    • Coming into contact with goal posts, particularly unattached posts
    • Trying to head the ball with too much force or with improper form
  • Sprained ankles from improper slide tackles
  • Twisted knees either from slides tackles or from rotating your lower leg while your foot is planted in open field

“This isn’t the World Cup. Just go out there and have fun.”

To keep the game enjoyable and avoid getting hurt, Dr. Warren offers some tips for soccer safety on the pitch.

Warming Up Well

“The first thing is to make sure you’re properly warmed up and not stiff and tight before you start practicing or before a game,” Dr. Warren says.

She suggests dynamic, full-range-of-motion exercises:

  • High knees
  • Open doors (knees swinging up and out)
  • Jogging, pulling knees up high

“The goal is to get your joints and muscles loose for about 15 to 20 minutes. Start with easy drills to get your coordination going. Don’t do one-on-ones until everyone’s warmed up,” Dr. Warren advises.

Get the Right Gear

Protective gear and equipment can make a difference in evading injury. Proper-fitting soccer cleats, shorts and jerseys are necessary. Additionally, Dr. Warren suggests using:

  • Shin guards
    • The #1 most recommended—and required—safety item
    • Full-length, age-appropriate shin guards to provide maximum protection against cuts, bruises and tibia fractures
  • Eyewear
    • Normal eyeglasses can be a liability during play
    • Sport goggles are an excellent choice (e.g., Rec-Specs) if you wear glasses
  • Headgear
    • Goalies in particular are in danger of head injury
    • A thin helmet (called a ventilator helmet) is a good option for goalies

“Don’t wear any jewelry, necklaces or anything that can be grabbed,” Dr. Warren cautions. Jerseys should be tucked in at all times. Anything that can be pulled can be used to knock you off balance and put you in jeopardy for injury.

Tank Up on Water & Carbs

“Hydration is very important. During soccer practice and games, you probably can’t drink too much,” says Dr. Warren. The physician/soccer trainer makes the following recommendations:

  • Drink at least one full bottle of water before playing.
  • Drink straight through the practice or game.
  • Drink another bottle of water afterward to catch up.

“Eat extra carbohydrates before practice and games so you have energy to play, and eat them afterward to replenish your muscles,” Dr. Warren advises. She recommends breads and pasta in particular, avoiding greasy, cheese-based foods, such as pizza and enchiladas.

Practice Proper Technique

Following good form, Dr. Warren says, is imperative in avoiding injury:

  • By heading the ball properly
    • Leaning back and then lunging forward
    • Using your back muscles, not your neck muscles
    • Hitting the ball around the hairline
  • By slide tackling correctly
    • Keeping your cleats to the ground
    • Pushing the ball away quickly
    • Getting back on your feet immediately
  • By ensuring the goal posts are securely in the ground
    • Don’t use the kind of goals that are on rollers
    • Padded goalposts are recommended

Watching the Weather

Rain and mud are safety’s adversaries. A soggy field results in slippery conditions, increasing the risk for knee and ankle damage. Dr. Warren suggests using:

  • extra caution when playing on a wet field
  • a longer cleat for wet weather use; best used by experienced soccer players

But the greater danger is lightning. “You’re at particular risk on a soccer field,” Dr. Warren notes, “because it’s open and broad with no trees. You can get hit very easily.” Most soccer leagues mandate stoppage of play when lightning’s been sighted.

“We follow FIFA recommendations here. If there’s been a lightning strike, we wait for at least 30 minutes—or the referee can choose to wait longer to resume play if the situation warrants,” says Ron Davis, general manager of Centex Storm Soccer Club.

Attitude Matters Most

You have to have the correct outlook to play soccer safely, Dr. Warren says. She offers these final tips for safety on the soccer field:

  • Don’t be afraid when you play.
    • “If you play fearfully, you’ll be on your heels when people are coming at you,” cautions Dr. Warren.
    • A defensive mode increases your risk of injury.
  • Have the right mindset.
    • Soccer is for enjoyment and athletics.
    • Don’t play through injuries; stop if you get hurt.
  • Play by the rules at all times.
    • Compete fairly, following the laws of the game.
    • Referees are responsible for controlling aggressive or out-of-control play.
    • Coaches should intervene and request the referee stop play that is dangerous or potentially injurious.

“This isn’t the World Cup,” Dr. Warren says. “Just go out there and have fun.”

[1] 2006, National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS)

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Some suggestions for safer soccer