Having younger children stretch before a game doesn't help them play better or avoid being hurt, experts say.
"In the 10-and-under group, this is window dressing and frilly," said Dr. Stephen Rice, a pediatric sports medicine specialist and director of primary care sports medicine at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, N.J.
Kids in this age range are flexible anyway, and generally don't need the stretches that coaches require before a practice, game or exercise program, Rice said. The kids' time could be better spent in warmups, which increase blood flow to the muscles, he said.
About the most that can be said for pregame stretches is that they teach techniques that youngsters might need to relieve muscle tightness after they hit puberty and grow thicker muscle, he said.
"Stretching has not been proven to decrease the risk of injury," said Mike Bracko, an exercise physiologist and director of the Institute for Hockey Research in Calgary, Alberta. The Canadian organization studies performance and holds training clinics.
A stretch simply extends the range of motion of muscles, tendons and ligaments, typically beyond what the sport actually will demand, Bracko said.
And kids don't like stretches -- it's hard to make younger players hold the proper positions, Bracko said. "They are better able and coordinated to just do warmup movements," he said.
A warmup also probably will lower the risk of injury, Bracko said. A warmup gradually raises body temperature and heart rates, deepens breathing, pushes more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, and triggers faster nerve reactions, he said.
A proper warmup should look something like the sport that the kids will be doing, said Michael Gray of Northern Kentucky University.
"The kids have to do some light, imitative act," said Gray, a board member of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, which focuses on youth recreational league activities. "If you are going to play baseball, do light throwing. In soccer, do light jogging or running."
"We know kind of intuitively, and with some degree of science, that if you do activity when your muscles are cold, you are more likely to get pulled muscles," Rice said. In his 25 years of practice, he's become used to seeing more patients at the start of a season or early in the day.
There are exceptions, however. Players with chronically tight muscles may benefit from stretches to loosen them, Bracko said. In hockey players, this could include the hamstrings, hip flexors and abdominal muscles that hold a player bent slightly forward.
Stretching after play may help relieve muscle soreness because the stretches seem somehow to reduce muscles' sensitivity to pain.
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