From the asphalt courts of Harlem to the high school gyms of Indiana, basketball is a way of life for millions of American teens. Guys want to be the next LeBron or Shaq. Girls want to be the next hotshot recruit at UConn or Tennessee. But there's more to it than just fame and fortune. Everyone is playing because they love the game of basketball.
It may be fun to play and great exercise, but basketball is also a contact sport, and injuries occur frequently. Also, since basketball players play year-round, indoors and out, many suffer from repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) like tendonitis.
To help make sure you're doing everything you can to stay safe on the basketball court, follow these safety tips.
Why Is Basketball Safety Important?
Nearly half a million basketball injuries are treated by doctors and hospitals each year. Fortunately, very few of those injuries are life threatening. Some (like broken bones, concussions, and ligament tears) can be quite serious, though. And while playing through the pain might seem noble, it can lead to serious muscle and joint problems over time.
Sprained ankles are the most common basketball injuries, but jammed or broken fingers, bruises, bloody or broken noses, and poked eyes are all too common as well. When playing outdoors, abrasions (particularly to the palms and fingers) are always a risk.
Indoor ball presents its own hazards in the form of walls and bleachers, and players are bound to collide going after loose balls and rebounds wherever they play.
If you've got two people, a ball, and a basketball hoop, you've got just about everything you need for a basketball game. But this doesn't mean you don't need to pay attention to what you wear, especially on your feet.
Before you take the court, take steps to protect yourself by always wearing the following:
- Basketball sneakers. The right shoe can go a long way toward reducing ankle, foot, and leg injuries. For added ankle support, some players choose to play in high-top sneakers, but low-rise shoes will suffice. All basketball shoes should have a sturdy, non-skid sole and should be the right size and securely laced at all times while playing. Never play basketball in open-toed shoes, clogs, or heels (it sounds ridiculous, but it's been known to happen).
- Athletic support. If you're a guy, you don't have to wear a protective cup unless your league requires it or you choose to, but you'll appreciate having a good athletic supporter when you're running down the court or jostling under the net. Girls should consider a good sports bra, and many players of both sexes choose to wear supportive athletic shorts beneath their basketball shorts.
- Mouthguard. Some youth leagues may require players to wear a mouthguard. If yours doesn't, you should strongly consider wearing one anyway to guard against broken teeth and injuries to the mouth.
- Other gear. Players who wear glasses, and many who wear contacts, will want to use protective eyewear made of shatterproof plastic. Players with prior injuries can benefit from fitted knee, ankle, or wrist braces to support their joints while playing.
Where to Play
Since basketball can involve anywhere from two to 10 players, it can be played in small spaces as easily as giant arenas. Driveways, playgrounds, gyms, and barnyards are all potential courts and present basketball players with an ever-changing variety of surfaces.
Regardless of where you choose to play, you should always inspect the court before you start and make sure it is free of debris, particularly broken glass (ouch!) and loose gravel. The court surface should also be free of any cracks, holes, or irregularities that could lead to sprained or twisted ankles.
If you're going to play outside at night, be sure the court is well lit and in a safe area. Indoor courts should give you plenty of distance between the edges of the court and any walls, bleachers, or other obstacles. Basket stands and any walls near them should be well padded and properly secured. Store extra equipment like balls, gym bags, and other gear where they won't interfere with players going after loose balls.
As with many sports, basketball requires running, jumping, and other athletic movements. Staying in good shape year-round will not only make you better at these actions, it will help reduce your risk of injury and improve your stamina so you can play harder for longer periods of time. Be sure to get plenty of exercise before the season starts, and always try to eat a healthy diet.
Warm up and stretch before you start playing. This doesn't mean just shooting a few hoops or dribbling with both hands. Do some jumping jacks or run in place for a couple of minutes, and then have a good stretching session, paying particular attention to your ankles, wrists, calves, and hamstrings. It's a good idea to stretch after a game, too.
Practice shooting, dribbling, layups, and running the court before you try to duplicate these maneuvers during a game. Knowing how to do what you want to do will make your movements less awkward and less prone to injury. And naturally, know the rules and how to play safely before you compete against other players.
During Game Play
Once the ball is put in play, things will start to move quickly on the court. Know where your teammates and any opponents are at all times. This will help you avoid potentially painful collisions.
Fouling other players will not only hurt your team and possibly land you a seat on the bench, it's also a very common source of injuries. Play within the rules, with no shoving, tripping, or holding, and always obey the officials. Never deliberately or flagrantly foul another player.
If you get tired during the course of a game, ask to come out for a while to catch your breath, and be sure to stay well hydrated. Heat stroke and dehydration are legitimate risks, particularly on sunny outdoor courts.
If you feel pain in any of your joints or muscles, stop playing right away. Don't resume playing until the pain goes away or you get clearance from a trained physician.
Lastly, know where the ball is at all times. This may seem obvious, but many players get hurt by being hit with the ball when they aren't looking. Basketballs are hard enough to easily break a nose or a finger.
With summer AAU programs, school and church leagues, travel teams, camps, and all-star games to choose from, lots of guys and girls spend the whole year playing basketball. This can lead to more than just burnout. Tendonitis in the wrist, knee, and ankle areas can become very painful and debilitating if untreated.
Always tell a coach or parent if you're experiencing any pain in your joints or muscles, and never ignore any tweaks, spasms, or discomfort you feel while playing. Prolonging stress-related injuries will only make them harder to recover from in the long run.
If you have any concerns that you're playing too much basketball, work with your parents and coaches to try to reduce your schedule.
A Few Other Reminders
- If it's on-court and serious, find a ref. You probably won't need adult supervision for games of one-on-one or two-on-two in your driveway or at the playground, but full-court, five-on-five basketball is a different story. Be sure a responsible adult — be it a coach, parent, or referee — is on hand for any games like that.
- Make sure first aid supplies and someone who knows how to use them are readily available at the courts where you play.
- Don't chew gum, toothpicks, or anything else while playing basketball. They could present a risk of choking.
- Never fight with other players or teammates. This will not only get you kicked out of any sanctioned basketball game, it will also increase your likelihood of being injured, not to mention embarrassed.
Finally, get out there on the court and have fun working on your skills and leading your team to victory. With a little forethought and some common sense and etiquette, you can keep things safe and stay injury-free and in the game. Next thing you know, that'll be you hitting the shot at the buzzer to win the Final Four or the NBA championship.
Reviewed by: Alfred Atanda Jr., MD
Date reviewed: March 2010
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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