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Did you know that playing tennis with a badly strung racquet while wearing worn-out shoes can increase your risk of injury almost as much as playing football without shoulder pads? Using the wrong — or improperly fitted — equipment is a major cause of injuries.

Helmets Are Key

The equipment you wear while participating in sports and other activities is key to preventing injuries.

Start with helmets: They're important for sports such as football, hockey, baseball, softball, biking, skateboarding, inline skating, skiing, and snowboarding — to name just a few.

  • Always wear a helmet made for the sport you're playing.
  • When choosing a bike helmet, look for a sticker that says the helmet meets the safety standard set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a federal regulatory agency that creates safety standards for bike helmets and other safety equipment.
  • If you use a multi-sport helmet for inline skating and skateboarding, it is not considered safe for bicycle riding unless it has the CPSC sticker.
  • Any helmet should fit snugly but comfortably on your head and shouldn't tilt backward or forward.

Eye Protection

Eye protection also is a must for many sports:

  • The most protective eye gear is made from a plastic called polycarbonate and has been tested especially for sports use.
  • Facemasks or polycarbonate guards or shields that attach to a helmet are worn in sports such as football, ice hockey, and softball and baseball when batting.
  • Goggles are often worn for soccer, basketball, racquet sports, snowboarding, street hockey, and baseball and softball when fielding.
  • If you wear glasses, you'll probably need prescription polycarbonate goggles — don't just wear your regular glasses when you're on the court or field.
  • All eye protection should fit securely and have cushions above your eyebrows and over your nose.

More Essential Equipment

Mouthguards can protect your mouth, teeth, and tongue:

  • You should wear a mouthguard if you play a contact sport or other sport where head injury is a risk, such as football, basketball, hockey, volleyball, martial arts, boxing, or wrestling.
  • Mouthguards can be fitted for your mouth by a dentist or purchased at sports stores.
  • If you wear a retainer, always take it out before you start to exercise, practice, or play.

Wrist, knee, and elbow guards are important gear, too:

  • If you inline skate, skateboard, or ride a scooter, you should wear guards.
  • Elbow and wrist guards can prevent arm and wrist fractures, and knee guards can shield your knees from cuts and breaks.

If you play certain sports, especially contact sports, pads are essential:

  • All kinds of sports, from hockey to inline skating, use pads. There are shin, knee, elbow, wrist, chest, shoulder, hip, and thigh pads.
  • Check with your coach or doctor to find out what kinds of pads you might need for your sport.

Some guys may also need to wear a protective cup (to protect the testicles):

  • Guys who play hockey, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and other contact sports should use a cup.
  • For noncontact sports that involve running, guys should wear an athletic supporter.
  • If you're unsure, ask your coach, athletic trainer, or parent if you need a cup for your sport.

And last but not least, the right footwear can keep you from tripping and falling:

  • You know that sports like football, baseball, softball, and soccer require cleats. But you may not realize that sports like skateboarding and biking need special types of shoes, too. Ask your coach or doctor what shoes are best for your sport.
  • Replace shoes and cleats that have worn out or are no longer supportive.

Not only is the right kind of equipment important, so is the right fit. If you don't know if your equipment fits properly, check with a coach, gym teacher, athletic trainer, or parent to make sure you have the right size and that you're wearing it correctly. Many sporting goods stores can also help you find the right fit.

The bottom line: Wearing the right equipment with the right fit dramatically decreases your chances of getting hurt.

Warm Up to Keep Your Game Up

Don't rush into any sport or exercise without warming up first — muscles that haven't been properly prepared tend to be injured more easily.

Start out with some light cardiovascular activities, such as easy jogging, jumping jacks, or brisk walking, just to get your muscles going. Follow your brief warm-up with some stretches. (Stretching works best after a warm-up because your tissues are more elastic [flexible] due to the increase in heat and blood flow to the muscles.)

In addition to warm-ups and stretches, practice sessions are also excellent preparation for most sports or activities. If you belong to a team, attend as many team practices and games as possible. This will put you in top physical condition and help you and your teammates work together — and knowing how your teammates play will help prevent injuries.

Even if you don't belong to a team, you can use regular workouts and practices to enhance your performance and lessen the chance of injuries. Remember, if a tool isn't used, it gets rusty, so keep yourself in top shape with regular practice. For instance, try doing tennis drills or practicing your serve before starting a set. Shoot some baskets or play a quick game of one-on-one with a friend. Practice gets your brain and body to work together while improving your performance.

Although you should practice regularly, don't overdo it. Sudden increases in training frequency, duration, or intensity might produce better performance at first but can lead to overuse injuries later. Your doctor or coach can help you develop a training and conditioning program that's appropriate for your age and level of development.

Staying Off the Court When You're Hurt

If you've been injured and you try to come back too soon, you run the great risk of reinjuring yourself — maybe even more seriously than before. Don't let anyone — including yourself, your parents, your friends, or even your coach — pressure you into playing before your body is fully healed. Your doctor, coach, or trainer will give you specific advice on when you should return to your sport or activity.

Taking time to heal is particularly important if you've had a concussion. Lots of athletes try to come back too quickly after getting a concussion — because they can't see an injury, they think they're OK to play. But jumping back into the game too soon puts a player at greater risk for another concussion — as well as other even more dangerous brain injuries. So always get clearance from your doctor to play again if you've had a concussion.

Many athletes use pain relievers to avoid pain. If you feel persistent pain, don't use pain relievers to mask it, though. Taking large amounts of pain relievers — or, worse yet, taking pain relievers for a long time in order to play — can be dangerous. Pain is the body's way of signaling it's not happy with what you're doing. If you have a lot of pain, seek treatment so you can resolve what's causing it.

Be sure to seek medical treatment whenever you experience:

  • moderate to severe pain
  • pain that interferes with daily activity or sleep
  • swelling of the injured area
  • an inability to perform normal activities
  • pain that prevents you from maintaining proper form

The same advice goes for a cold or flu virus — don't play if you're sick. You won't be able to concentrate if your head is stuffed up and your nose is running faster than you are, and your lack of concentration can put you at risk for injury. You can also spread the cold or flu to the rest of your teammates. It's better to wait until you feel better, so you can have a safe season.

The Rules of the Game

Rules and regulations usually exist for a good reason — to keep you and your teammates in the game and to avoid injuries. Do yourself a favor and learn the rules thoroughly — and then follow them.

Rules aren't restrictions. They're designed to promote safety so that everyone can enjoy the game. For example, a late hit in football after the referee's whistle has blown leads to a pretty big penalty. This rule is important because a player could be seriously injured if he or she is not expecting a tackle after play has stopped.

Sometimes rules may not be directly related to a sport or activity but need to be followed anyway. For instance, if you're inline skating, skateboarding, or riding a bike, pay strict attention to all traffic laws, especially when riding on busy public streets.

Proper techniques also promote safety. This goes for any sport, from motor racing to baseball. Baseball players know not to spike the opposing player who's covering the bag, even when sliding hard into second base. And when two tennis players rush the net, an expertly angled volley is the correct shot — not a hard smash socked directly at an opponent's face!

Another example of a safe technique occurs in weightlifting. Weightlifters should take a breath between each repetition. Exhale on the pushing phase of a lift. So if you're doing a bench press, let the bar come down to your chest, and if you're pushing up, breathe out. Holding your breath can raise your blood pressure, and if you're pressing a lot of weight this can lead to a blackout or fainting spell.

So whether you're following rules, regulations, or proper techniques, remember that they aren't there to restrict you — they're there to keep you safe and injury free.

Reviewed by: Sarah R. Gibson, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014

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Related Resources:
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)
The AAOS provides information for the public on sports safety, and bone, joint, muscle, ligament and tendon injuries or conditions.
American College of Sports Medicine
This site has tips on staying safe while playing sports and exercising.
American Sports Medicine Institute
The mission of ASMI is to improve the understanding, prevention and treatment of sports-related injuries through research and education.
National Athletic Trainers' Association
This site contains information on certified athletic trainers and tips on preventing and healing sports injuries.
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC)
The website of NCIPC contains a variety of injury prevention information.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
This federal agency collects information about consumer goods and issues recalls on unsafe or dangerous products.