Soccer has never been more popular in the United States, despite the men’s national team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It’s the No. 2 youth sport in the country by total participation, trailing only basketball. Even here in New York—not exactly known for ideal weather during the colder seasons—you can find leagues and camps running year-round, and public fields full of recreational players whenever the terrain is reasonably clear.
And it’s a family tradition, too! Dr. Gasparini grew up playing with his father and grandfather, joined his first team at age 5, played in college, and now gets to enjoy coaching and playing with the next generation.
From a health perspective, soccer is a great activity for kids and adults alike. It naturally provides great aerobic exercise, with short bursts of explosive motion alternating with medium-intensity jogging and plenty of brief breaks to quickly catch your breath. It also helps develop physical skills like balance, agility, coordination, and strength—as well as mental skills like teamwork, strategic thinking, and how to deal with stress and adversity. Plus, it’s fun!
Unfortunately, as with any vigorous physical activity, soccer comes with a risk of injury to the feet and ankles. That being said, playing smart can reduce your risk of developing common soccer-related injuries like ankle sprains, shin and knee pain, and stress fractures.
Before the Season
Keep yourself in good physical condition. No, you don’t have to be a natural athlete to enjoy a game of soccer. But you shouldn't go straight from spending all winter on the couch to playing competitive matches, either. Players who try to do too much, too soon are at high risk of both acute and chronic injuries.
Several weeks before the season starts, start prepping your body for more intense physical activity. Do some cardio. Stretch regularly to improve strength and flexibility in your legs and feet, so they’re better able to handle the forces of running, jumping, and kicking in stride. This is especially important if you haven’t been physically active for a while before starting your soccer season.
Gear up. Make sure you have the right equipment and safety gear before you begin to play. Most importantly, you need an appropriate pair of soft-spiked soccer cleats. These should fit just right and be comfortable from the very first moment you or your child wears them—no “break in” period allowed.
Please do not use hand-me-downs from an older sibling or neighborhood friend, unless they’ve only been used once or twice. While this might save you a few bucks, these old cleats have likely already conformed to another person’s feet, creating painful pressure points when worn by someone else. They also may have broken down or worn out to some degree.
Definitely don’t try to get away with reusing junior’s old baseball, softball, or football cleats for soccer. Footgear for other sports often have higher cuffs, longer cleat studs, and “toe cleats” at the front of the shoe. This not only makes them less-than-ideal for performance, but actually makes them dangerous to use in a soccer match. Since in soccer you’re relatively likely to get kicked or stepped on by accident, those toe cleats in particular can actually cause a lot of damage. Stick to soccer-specific cleats only.
Get a pre-season physical. Most school and youth sports require this, and it is good practice. A physician can identify any underlying conditions or injuries that may predispose a player to a specific type of injury. He or she might also be able to make constructive recommendations about how to prevent injuries via certain types of gear, training practices, etc.
During the Season
Assess the quality of the playing conditions. This extends to everything about the field, the equipment, even the weather.
Poor quality grass or turf, uneven terrain, and waterlogged conditions all increase the likelihood of damaging slips, falls, and twists. Playing in inclement weather, especially intense heat and humidity, can also be very dangerous. Even the condition of the soccer balls matter—a properly inflated synthetic ball will hold up well in just about any situation, while balls that are too hard, too soft, or made of leather (which can absorb water) can pose problems.
Be mindful of higher-risk circumstances as they occur, and if the conditions are too dangerous for play, don’t play. Parents and coaches should insist on this and not compromise—the risks just are not worth it.
Warm up and cool down. You need to get your body ready for play in the moment. Good warm-ups will get your muscles, ligaments, and tendons working efficiently under much safer conditions than in competition. Start with light intensity warm up cardio (jogging in place, for example) and even some relevant tactical drills—cone exercises, passing exercises, etc. Once you’ve got your heart pumping, finish it off with some dynamic stretches.
After the game, it’s important to cool down and drop your heart rate slowly. Light jogging and some static stretches ought to do it.
Stay hydrated. Dehydration is a common problem that not only reduces athletic performance, but is also dangerous. Poor muscle control, balance, and technique increases the risk of awkward stumbles and tumbles.
If you wait until you’re thirsty, you’re probably already too late to stave off the effects of dehydration. The general recommendation is about two glasses of water (roughly 16 oz.) a couple of hours before the game, and about a glass (8 oz) every 20 minutes of competition. Have one more glass-sized gulp after the end of the game.
Avoid overtraining. Playing soccer all day, every day during the season—and then switching immediately to another club, season, or sport—is a recipe for overuse injuries like heel pain, tendinitis, stress fractures, shin splints and more. Your body needs rest time to recuperate. Athletic kids who play competitive sports year-round (and even multiple sports at a time) can burn out physically, mentally, and emotionally.
We know how badly you want to play, but it’s a good idea to take at least one season off per year from competition. That doesn’t mean sit on the couch instead—you should still be exercising, maintaining fitness, building strength and flexibility, etc.—but it does mean no games for a while.
It’s also critically important to listen to your body. If aches and pains are causing discomfort and affecting your performance, the correct solution is NOT to just “play through it.” (That’s how you take a minor injury and turn it into a major one.) Slow down, take a break, and talk to your coach, athletic trainer, or doctor. We can help with that.
After the Injury …
If your feet are hurting from a soccer-related injury, call the Foot Specialists of Long Island. We provide advanced sports injury treatment at our offices in Massapequa and Rockville Centre. We even offer MLS laser treatment, an advanced therapy that is extremely effective for athletes looking to make a quick recovery before the end of the season. Give us a call toll-free at (844) 899-8658 to set up an appointment.