Are Competitive Sports Safe for Girls?

Soccer injuries on the rise for girlsSoccer injuries on the rise for girlsThe statistics about girls' sports injuries can be scary for parents: girls suffer from up to 10 times as many anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries as boys, and in comparable sports (such as basketball, hockey, and soccer), they sustain nearly 30 percent more serious injuries than boys do. Perhaps most alarmingly, sports-related concussion rates are twice as high for women and girls and researchers don't know why.

Part of the reason for the overall increase in and visibility of girls' injuries is simply because of the sheer numbers of females participating in organized sports today. In the mid-1970s, only about 1 in 27 young women played high school sports; now that number has soared to 1 in 3, according to Nicole LaVoi, assistant director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

Related: Study: 1 in 3 kids gets badly injured while playing sports

Researchers also point out that athletic training has traditionally been developed for male bodies and hasn't kept pace with the physiological requirements of girls and women. During puberty, girls and boys both sprout in height, but boys put on more muscle. This imbalance can lead to and increase in sprains and fractures, especially related to the knees, hips, and pelvis. Female hormonal cycles can also cause connective tissues to soften.

"The good news is in all this is," Tim Hewitt, head of sports medicine research at Ohio State University, told Reuters Health, "these imbalances we observe can be corrected with neuromuscular training." A study of more than 1,500 girls in the Chicago public school system showed that a warm-up that included strengthening, balance, and agility exercises cut injuries to the lower extremities by half. The cost of training coaches to properly implement such as routines as "Girls Can Jump", which was developed by Laura Rasmus, P.T., the head athletic trainer to the WNBA's Detroit Shock, is also significantly less than the cost of medical treatment.

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LaVoi would like to see more not fewer girls participate in athletics. "For that one girl who is playing on a team," she tells Yahoo! Shine, "the second barely meets the minimum requirement for physical activity, and the third is completely sedentary."

The benefits of sports for girls are well researched and wide-ranging. The Women's Sports Foundation reports that girls who participate in athletics are less likely to become overweight or obese, enjoy better self-esteem, and have lower rates of drug and alcohol use and teen pregnancy. Just four hours of exercise a week reduces a girl's future breast cancer risk by 60 percent. They also do better in school and learn skills that are critical for future success including teamwork, goal setting, problem solving, and perseverance. According to the New York Times, 80 percent of female executives working at Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as "tomboys" who grew up participating in athletics.

"There are risks for both girls and boys," says LaVoi. Girls may get more ACL injuries but boys experience more ankle injuries, for instance. Since the rate of injuries is highest for football and wrestling, the number of athletic boys who get hurt across all sports is almost double that of girls.

What's different, LaVoi says, is that there is a "moral panic" around any new research about girls' athletic injuries. She adds, "Parents need to be familiar with the risks and benefits of the sports their child is going to participate in. The benefits aren't automatic. If your child is going to build confidence, make friends, have fun, or lose weight depends on the competency of the coach and the other adults who are involved."

Safekids.org has a wealth of information on helping both young female and male athletes stay injury-free.

Also on Shine:

5 Tips to Prevent Youth Sports Injuries

Advocates for Injured Athletes Aims to Arm Student Athletes with Life Saving Knowledge

The High Cost of Kids Sports