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USA Football Month: Expert says sports part of child development

By Joe Frollo, USA Football

Whether working with professional athletes or young amateurs, Dr. John Bergfeld has spent more than three decades on the forefront of sports medicine.

Bergfeld served as team physician for the Cleveland Browns from 1976-2003 and the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1982-2003. He is a consultant surgeon for the Browns and Cavaliers and team physician at Baldwin-Wallace University. Bergfeld was elected to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine Hall of Fame and designated Mr. Sports Medicine in 2009.

A member of the USA Football Medical Advisory Committee, Bergfeld recently spoke with USA Football about the physical and mental side of sports as well as some tips for parents to deal with the bumps and bruises that come with everyday activity.

How are sports -- including football -- important for growth and development in children?

Exercise develops muscles. It becomes a lifestyle and carries on throughout your life. Being part of sports and physical activity also develops good habits.

Sports play a big role, not just physically but mentally as well, in terms of development. Kids learn that they don't win every time they do something. If you are not involved in a sport, you might not realize that you can lose and still have done a good job.

Being in sports, you learn about teamwork. You can accomplish things by testing yourself, but with a team, you find out that other people are important and have skills to contribute as well.

Kids want to have fun. That's why they are there. They care about winning, but it's more about interacting with their friends. If you stress out about every error, they will not respond. They will eventually tune you out and walk away from the sport.

If a kid goes out and does four things well, don't fret about the fifth thing. Recognize and praise the four accomplishments.

How can playing multiple sports help in a young athlete's physical development?

There's no question that athletes can wear down their minds and bodies by playing one sport. The classic example is a baseball pitcher, where the muscles and tendons are pushed beyond their capacities. By participating in different sports, you use those muscles in different ways.

I always ask parents who force their children to focus on a single sport at a young age: Do you want your child's goal to be an all-star Little Leaguer or to be an all-star in high school and college? If the goal is high school or college, slow down. I believe there are great benefits to playing multiple sports in high school as well. You can learn different skills and different ways to use your body, which help overall athleticism.

Coaches also have a responsibility in this. I have a problem with coaches at the high school level and even at the youth level who say: "Unless you come to my summer camp, you don't have a chance to make this team." Coaches who do this step out of bounds by putting those stresses on kids.

Parents can overdo it as well by going to every practice, every game and making every moment out to be bigger than it is. Parents can set expectations on the child that are unrealistic, and if the child doesn't live up to them, it can be frustrating to both the child and parent and frustrate the child right out of sports.

It's not uncommon that single-sport kids leave after an overuse injury, and it has nothing to do with the injury or recovery. They focus all that time on the one sport, then when they are sidelined they find out there are other things they enjoy as well. Playing just the one sport isn't fun anymore.

Even within a sport such as football, why is it important to develop different skills and muscles?

Football lends itself to sub-specialization, but youngsters should have a try at every position, offensive and defensive. Mix it up. As kids mature, they will move toward what they like and are good at. That happens naturally.

If you don't give them the chance to try different positions early, they could get bored and drop out.

What's a simple way parents can help their children develop athletically?

There's a big thing to be said for free play. Sports are often too organized, and kids constantly going from one club or team to another can lose some of what sports gives you. Free play teaches kids about leadership that a coach-led team may not allow. Kids have to step up because no adults are involved selecting players, calling plays and directing the group.

Those kids who grow up on the playground and compete for the fun of it have an advantage because they adapt to different roles depending on who they play with.

Why is it important for young football players to develop basic skills and fundamentals?

Some young players are frightened of contact, and that's real. It's not in every child's nature to tackle and block people. Instead of pushing those players away and giving up on them, continue to coach them. As their confidence grows, so will their abilities.

Kids are used to falling down and knocking against people. By putting kids through a gradual, structured drill set, they can develop the skills necessary for the sport.

Youth football coaches have a real responsibility. High school and college coaches can focus on details and already expect their players to be able to do the basic things. Young players have a lot more to learn and overcome. At the youth level, more time should be spent on those basic aspects and not worry about getting into too much detail about games.

How can coaches and parents tell the difference between a commonly sprained knee or ankle and something they should see a doctor about?

Kids don't limp unless they are hurting. Watch how they walk or run.

If the knee is swollen or tender to touch, particularly on the side of the knee, that's a sign of significant injury. If the player loses joint motion, you should have a doctor take a look at the knee.

The ankle is pretty much the same thing. A healthy ankle will not be tender over the bones. If there is tenderness or pain when you touch the bone, this is a warning sign of possible fracture.

Black and blue is an automatic indication of significant injury. But by the time it becomes discolored, it's usually two or three days later and you probably already figured it out.

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