Teaching Your Young Athlete Good Hydration Habits

Young athletes need good hydration habits, such as always carrying a drink and taking water breaks, to ensure good performance and avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion.
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Youth sports are a staple in the lives of most American families. According to Project Play, children between the ages of 6 and 18 spent an average of 16.6 hours per week playing sports in September 2022. With that much time spent active, ensuring that young athletes are getting the hydration they need can be a challenge, especially during heat waves.

Though proper hydration is critical during all forms of physical activity, one in five U.S. children and young adults don’t drink water during a typical day. A lack of water in active children can not only harm their performance on the field or the court, but it can also lead to health issues related to metabolism, gastrointestinal functions, and even their immune response.

Because of these concerns and the prevalence of dehydration, parents should not only teach their kids how to make healthy choices, but how they can get enough water during practices, games, and other outdoor activities. Here are a few ways to help teach your children good hydration habits.

Mother with Child Drinking Water
Children Playing With A Parachute

#1 Have Plenty Of Water Available

The first step might be obvious, but it’s easy to overlook as you rush to a game or practice or prepare the kids for outside play. Young athletes need to have an accessible and adequate supply of water to stay hydrated. This supply of water should also be kept at a temperature that encourages the child to drink more.

When out on a soccer, football, or baseball field, kids can bring a bottle of water with them to their team’s area. However, if it’s hot outside or the area they leave their bottle in is in the sun, the water will heat up — often to a point that makes them avoid their water bottle altogether. A vacuum bottle can help the liquid remain cold so that it not only provides the necessary hydration but also allows the drinker to feel refreshed.

You should also look for portable hydration bottles. These often come with a straw and handles or quick-flip lids that are easy to carry and offer quick access to water, perfect for quick water breaks during practice. As a bonus, this type of bottle is typically insulated, keeping the water inside cool.

At the end of the day, each child has their preferences when it comes to color and design. By offering them a few options to choose between, they’re more likely to find a bottle they like, making them want to use it more.

#2 Schedule Times for Water Breaks

When your child is at practice or a game, the coach likely has water breaks planned at regular intervals to ensure each athlete gets an opportunity to hydrate. You can do the same when your child is playing at home or in a park. Medical experts suggest taking several gulps of water every 15 to 20 minutes, so you can schedule pauses in play at these intervals. In some situations, it might be appropriate to have them set a watch or alarm as an added reminder during practices or outdoor activities.

#3 Lead By Example

Starting from the moment they’re born, nearly all children’s behavior patterns are learned from their parents. Studies have shown that kids will engage in the same practices as their mother or father, even if they do not fully understand the purpose or reason of the practice. This phenomenon can be used to impart lasting habits including good hydration for kids.

Children need to associate drinking water with positive effects, such as having more energy, maintaining a comfortable body temperature, and being able to play longer. Parents can model good hydration behavior when their kids are participating in exercise or activities with them. These habits can include hydrating before and recovering after activities, taking regular water breaks, and always remembering to fill up and bring a water bottle.

#4 Schedule Times for Bathroom Breaks

One challenge to good hydration behavior is a full bladder. When they drink more water, kids will need to use the bathroom more often. If they aren’t able to do so, they may associate water with discomfort, embarrassment, and distraction. You can solve this potential issue by planning for regular bathroom breaks during outdoor activities and home play. Kids can then make bathroom breaks part of their hydration habits when they play organized sports.

Stanley Water Jug Hanging On Fence

Why Is Hydration Important for Young Athletes?

Hydration is essential for peak athletic performance. According to Texas-based Children’s Health, proper hydration has many benefits including increasing agility, mental acuity, endurance, muscle function, and energy while decreasing recovery time. Even if a child is only 2% dehydrated, they will see a noticeable decrease in performance in almost every athletic metric. In addition to performance, dehydration could lead to conditions like cramps, heat exhaustion, or even heat stroke.

What Are the Benefits of Staying Hydrated?

Ensuring that your children — and you — stay properly hydrated has a range of physical and mental benefits. Apart from the aforementioned decrease in performance, not getting enough water can significantly affect energy levels and brain function as a whole. Additionally, water helps your body

  • Maintain a normal temperature;

  • Protect your sensitive tissues including your spinal cord;

  • Ensure that waste and toxins are removed;

  • Maintain a healthy weight;

  • Cushion and lubricate joints, preventing injury;

  • Prevent kidney stones and other related conditions.

How Much Water Should an Athlete Drink a Day?

Hydration needs can vary dramatically depending on age, activity, and the environment. A good general rule for athletes to follow is to take half of their body weight and drink at least one ounce per pound throughout a typical day. It’s also recommended that you adjust your water intake to reflect your body’s needs before, during, and after you engage in physical activity. Ideally, you should increase the amount you drink before and after activity and decrease your intake during activity.

How Much Water Should a Kid Drink?

During exercise, kids need to drink water at regular intervals to maintain hydration. Children’s Health suggests the best approach is to consume water before the practice or game and then remain hydrated with four to six gulps every quarter-hour during activity. Recovery after the game or practice should include at least 24 ounces of water for every pound of sweat lost.

Ideal water intake when it comes to proper hydration for kids varies by age group, however. Kids between 9 and 12 will need nine to 24 ounces of water per hour, while teens need 34 to 50 ounces every 60 minutes during vigorous exercise.

Keep in mind that water replacement after exercise should be in addition to the regular intake for the day. According to Children’s Health of Orange County, kids need one 8-ounce serving of water per year of age until around the age of 9. Those 9 years and older need eight eight-ounce servings per day, which is the equivalent of two liters.

Incentivizing Proper Hydration for Kids

Drinking water regularly throughout the day, especially during exercise, is key to avoiding dehydration. However, there are several obstacles parents must overcome when trying to ensure their children obtain the full benefits of staying hydrated.

In addition to developing good drinking habits, you need to ensure kids avoid the temptation of sugary drinks. Sugar and caffeine, found in sweetened soda products, increase urination, which can cause kids to lose water faster than normal. These products may also contain sodium or other additives that can exacerbate dehydration.  

However, some kids may find the removal of these sugary drinks to be a punishment, especially if they view water as boring or unexciting. To counteract that, it’s best to find ways to incentivize proper hydration habits in your children during physical activity.

Ways to Incentivize Drinking Water

Rewards can encourage responsible behaviors and reinforce them without rules or punishments, which can negatively impact self-esteem and parent-child relationships. Because of this, a reward system can help inspire kids who are resistant to the idea of drinking water regularly during exercise.

You can try social rewards, which include praise, affection, and activity-based incentives, such as added screen time, going to the movies or zoo, or reading a story with them in the evening.

Materials prizes, such as toys, food, or trips to a restaurant, can also work. If you want to spread these incentives out, you can use a checklist or stickers to track water-drinking habits. If the kids finish their water bottles during an activity, they can add one sticker to their page. Once it is full of stickers (or reaches a predetermined threshold), they get their reward.

If you combine all these practices, you can help your children understand the benefits of staying hydrated, including achieving peak performance on the field or court and remaining healthy while they play.