Safety Tips: Basketball

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 like tendonitis. To help make sure you're doing everything you can to stay safe on the basketball court, follow these safety tips.

Why Basketball Safety Is Important

Nearly half a million basketball injuries are treated by doctors and hospitals each year. Fortunately, very few of those are life-threatening. Some (like broken bones, concussions, and ligament tears) can be quite serious, though. And while playing through the pain may seem noble to kids, 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.

Gear Guidelines

Two people, a ball, and a basketball hoop are just about everything needed for a basketball game. But this doesn't mean that kids don't need to pay attention to what gear to wear, especially on their feet. When taking the court, they should always be 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. Kids should never play basketball in open-toed shoes, clogs, or heels (it sounds ridiculous, but it's been known to happen).
  • Athletic support. Wearing a protective cup is usually up to personal choice unless the particular league requires it, but boys will appreciate having a good athletic supporter when 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. In any case, kids should strongly consider wearing one anyway to guard against broken teeth, mouth, or tongue injuries.
  • Other gear. Players who wear glasses, and many who wear contacts, will want to use protective eyewear made of shatterproof plastic. Kids 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, and gyms are all potential courts and present basketball players with an ever-changing variety of surfaces.

Regardless of where the game is played, players should always inspect the court beforehand and make sure it is free of debris, particularly broken glass and loose gravel. The court surface should also be free of any cracks, holes, or irregularities that could lead to sprained or twisted ankles.

For night games played outside, the court should be well lit and in a safe area. Indoor courts should have 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. Extra equipment, like balls, gym bags, and other gear, should be stored where they won't interfere with players going after loose balls.

Before Tip-Off

As with many sports, basketball requires running, jumping, and other athletic movements. Staying in good shape year-round will not only make kids better at these actions, it will help them reduce their risk of injury and improve stamina to allow them to play harder for longer periods of time. Make sure your kids get plenty of exercise before the season starts, and make sure they always try to eat a healthy diet.

Kids should warm up and stretch before playing. This doesn't mean just shooting a few hoops or dribbling with both hands. They should do some jumping jacks or run in place for a couple of minutes, then have a good stretching session, paying particular attention to the ankles, wrists, calves, and hamstrings.

Kids should practice shooting, dribbling, layups, and running the court before they try to duplicate these maneuvers during a game. Knowing what to do and how to do it will make movements less awkward and less prone to injury. And naturally, a player should know the rules and how to play safely before competing against others.

During Game Play

Once the ball is put in play, things will start to move quickly on the court. Knowing where teammates and opponents are at all times will help kids avoid potentially painful collisions.

Fouls are also a very common source of injuries. Many injuries can be avoided by playing within the rules, with no shoving, tripping, or holding, and always obeying the officials.

Make sure your kids know that if they get tired during the course of a game, they should ask to come out for a breather. Also make sure they know how to stay well hydrated. Heat stroke and dehydration are legitimate risks, particularly on sunny outdoor courts.

Kids who feel pain in any of joints or muscles should stop playing right away and not resume playing until the pain goes away or clearance is given by a doctor.

Lastly, a player should 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.

Excessive Play

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.

Encourage your child to always tell you or the coach when experiencing any pain in joints or muscles, and to never ignore any tweaks, spasms, or discomfort while playing. Prolonging stress-related injuries will only make them harder to recover from in the long run.

If you or your child feel that he or she is playing too much basketball, work with coaches to try a reduced or modified schedule.

A Few Other Reminders

  • If it's on-court and serious, make sure a responsible adult — be it a coach, parent, or referee — is on hand. Kids 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.
  • Make sure first-aid equipment is on hand — along with someone who knows how to use it.
  • Tell kids not to chew gum, toothpicks, or anything else while playing basketball. They could present a risk of choking.
  • Remind your kids to never fight with other players or teammates. This will not only get a kid kicked out of any sanctioned basketball game, it will also increase the likelihood of injury, not to mention embarrassment.

With all this in mind, kids can get out there on the court and have fun working on their skills and leading their team to victory. With a little forethought and some common sense and etiquette, they can stay safe and in the game.

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.