At least once a week in my practice, a concerned parent will ask me what I think the best and safest sport is for their child to play. I always respond that there isn’t an answer that’s the same for everyone. It depends on what you’re looking for.
Experts at the Hospital for Special Surgery and the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, in collaboration with an advisory group of medical doctors, researchers and other specialists, aims to help parents with such an answer based on the parents’ own preferences. The online tool, called the Healthy Sport Index, can help parents choose from among 10 sports ranked by the Index that balances the positive aspects of sports with its inherent injury risk.
The 10 girls’ sports ranked are basketball, cheerleading, cross country, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. For boys, it’s baseball, basketball, cross country, football, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, and wrestling.
The three areas of health analyzed by the Healthy Sport Index are:
• Physical activity, namely how much the athletes move in that sport
• Safety, or how prevalent injuries are
• Psychosocial, incorporating factors like social skills, cognitive skills, initiative, goal setting, academic achievement and substance abuse.
Within each domain, 75 percent of the score consists of scientific data on that sport, and 25 percent comes from expert opinion.
Parents who want to use this online tool, found at healthysportindex.com, can set their preferences in each category. The rankings for each sport change based on those preferences.
I used the Index to set my preferences of what I find important in sports for my kids. I chose a high interest on safety, with a moderate emphasis on both physical activity and psychosocial. The sports that the Healthy Sport Index recommended for my kids were cross country for boys and swimming for girls.
It ranked boys’ tennis, which my son plays, fifth out of 10. My daughter is on a competitive dance team. The closest sport to hers is cheerleading, although dance doesn’t have the tumbling or stunts. Cheerleading ranked last based on my preferences.
It’s important to note that just because a sport ranks poorly compared to others on this list, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad choice. One sport can differ greatly depending on the league, school or coach. Plus, a poor ranking doesn’t mean that a child shouldn’t play it. Playing any sport is probably better than not playing a sport at all.
The Healthy Sport Index also offers recommended companion sports for all of the sports based on health and development of skills. Interestingly, for all the sports offered for boys and girls, basketball was recommended as the best companion sport for seven of them.
The Index also offers overall rankings for each sport if all three health areas are weighed equally. The best sports are cross country for boys and swimming for girls. Football ranked last overall for boys, and cheerleading did so for girls.
Football actually ranked second for psychosocial benefits, but that score is negated by the sport ranking eighth for physical activity and 10th for safety. Still, football’s perceived benefits in terms of psychological and social development might explain why so many kids and parents choose football despite increasing attention on concussions and other injuries in the sport.
According to data on the Index’s website, young athletes who play contact sports are more likely than other athletes to engage in risky off-the-field behavior. Lacrosse, wrestling and football had the highest rates of binge drinkers, smokers, marijuana users, students cutting class and had among the worst scores for students receiving A or A- grades and expecting to graduate from a four-year college.
The Healthy Sport Index is a useful tool, and I encourage parents of kids starting to play sports to try it and see how their health and safety preferences should influence their decisions. As Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, director of sports medicine research at Emory University and an expert involved with this tool, explains, “We talk a lot about injuries in youth sports, for good reason. But it’s important to look at all aspects of the athletic experience. If you just focus on one, you’re missing the boat.”
Dr. David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”