Does Your Kid Need an Athletic Cup?

Protective equipment like sports cups can help avoid injury
Children playing soccer, basketball and baseball in background with Atheltic cup in foreground.

Helmets, padding, shin guards, gloves and … a cup?

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You might be wondering exactly what you need to keep your athletic youth safe when they tackle their next big sports season. But athletic cups (also called sports cups and protective cups) are an important yet often overlooked piece of sports equipment that can help protect their groin from potential injury.

Certified nurse practitioner Kimberly Slocombe, CNP, explains just what an athletic cup can do for active youth.

Who should wear an athletic cup?

Athletic cups are historically worn by people with testicles because they hang outside of the body and are left vulnerable to impact. But anyone who plays high-contact sports, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, can wear groin protection every time they play if they’re worried about injury.

“Cups lower the risk of injuries by protecting the groin from an impact with a ball, puck or another person,” says Slocombe.

Sports cups, or protective cups, soften blows to the groin while transferring the shock of the impact away from highly sensitive and vulnerable body parts like testicles. Pelvic protectors and groin guards (sometimes called female groin protectors) are also available to offer protection to the vagina and lower abdomen, as well to prevent bruising or tearing.

At what age do kids need an athletic cup?

“A child needs to wear a cup as soon as they start playing contact sports,” advises Slocombe. “For some kids, that’s as early as age 5.”

In addition to offering much-needed protection, starting early helps kids learn to think of the devices as essential sports equipment.

“Wearing a cup should become routine just like putting on a helmet or shin guards,” she adds.

What athletes need an athletic cup?

Your child should wear an athletic cup if they participate in high-impact sports, such as:

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  • Baseball or softball.
  • Basketball.
  • Boxing.
  • Football.
  • Ice hockey or field hockey.
  • Lacrosse.
  • Rugby.
  • Soccer.
  • Wrestling.

What happens if a child doesn’t wear an athletic cup?

A direct hit to the groin can lead to serious injuries that can include:

It’s important to note that sports hernias aren’t actual hernias — they’re usually tears in the muscles of your lower abdomen or groin associated with nerve irritation or pain. Healthcare providers refer to these as “athletic pubalgia.” If left untreated, athletic pubalgia can lead to an eventual hernia, though the two are different conditions.

“Blunt trauma to the groin can cause severe testicular pain and other medical emergencies,” says Slocombe.

In the most severe cases, if a child loses a testicle as a result of a groin injury, it could increase their future risk of:

Tips for finding the right athletic cup

Shopping for athletic cups (especially if you’re shopping for someone else, like your child) can be challenging. There are different sizes, materials and ways to wear cups, which adds to the confusion. These tips can make the process a little easier for you and your kid.

1. Figure out the right size

Because kids grow and mature physically at different paces, Slocombe recommends choosing a cup size based on your child’s waist circumference, not their age — and most brands sell cups this way.

Athletic cup sizes may have the following ranges:

Waist sizeSports rangeSports cup size
19 to 22 inchesPeeweeExtra small
22 to 28 inchesYouthSmall
28 to 30 inchesTeenMedium
30 to 46 inchesAdultLarge

2. Select the sports cup material

In the past, athletic cups were made from metals like perforated steel. They were strong but not very comfortable. Today’s athletic cups are made from materials like molded polymer plastic (with airholes for ventilation) or carbon fiber (a super-strong, breathable fabric). Some cups also have cushioned gel padding around the edges for added comfort.

“The cup material is often a matter of preference,” notes Slocombe.

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Young athletes who play sports with a lot of player-on-player contact, like football and hockey for example, may want a sturdier plastic material than those who play soccer or other sports with less frequent player contact.

3. Decide how to secure the athletic cup in place

There are different options for keeping an athletic cup in place. Regardless of your child’s preference, make sure they wear the cup with the narrow end pointing down toward their feet and the wider part up toward their waistline. In every case, you’ll want to follow the instructions that come with the cup to make sure it’s worn correctly.

Options for keeping an athletic cup or groin protector in place include:

  • Compression shorts: These snug-fitting, mid-thigh length shorts have openings or pockets that hold an athletic cup in place. “Most kids today prefer compression shorts,” says Slocombe.
  • Impact shorts: These compression shorts have a sleeve for the athletic cup and sleeves to insert hip guards and thigh guards. Kids who play football or hockey may prefer these shorts.
  • Athletic supporters (jockstraps/jill strings): Athletic supporters (better known as jockstraps or jill strings by most brands) have an elastic waistband, a cloth front that covers the genitals and a pocket for the sports cup or protector. Two elastic leg straps run underneath the butt cheeks, which are exposed. Most athletes wear underwear or compression shorts over these.

4. Check for proper fit

“Getting the proper size and fit can be tricky,” says Slocombe. “The general rule is that an athletic cup should fit snugly against the groin but shouldn’t press up against your testicles or skin.”

To check for fit, have your child run, jump, lunge and squat while wearing a cup. Your child may need a smaller cup size if the cup feels loose or shifts. If your child complains about pinching or chafing, they may need a larger cup size.

“I often hear athletes say they can’t run or move as well while wearing a cup,” says Slocombe. “That comment tells me they’re either wearing the wrong size or wearing the cup incorrectly. A properly fitting athletic cup shouldn’t affect movements.”

And because kids aren’t always the best judge of what qualifies as “a good fit,” you may want them to see their healthcare provider for a quick assessment before purchasing new equipment.

How do you clean sports cups?

This question resonates particularly strongly with parents or caregivers after a big game. Read the directions on the packaging for information on how to clean a sports cup. Sometimes, you can toss it into the washing machine with the rest of your kid’s stinky athletic gear. Or you may need to handwash the cup or protector with hot water and laundry detergent or antibacterial soap. Any way you choose to handle them, they should always air-dry after being washed.

“It’s helpful to have multiple sports cups, so your child can switch them out in between activities and cleanings,” suggests Slocombe.

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