Written by Jamie Ligon, PT, DPT
Over training and sports injuries are commonplace problems in young developing athletes. Some of the trouble is attributed to a “no pain, no gain” and a “don’t stop, never quit” go-go-go mentality. Other contributing factors relate to a lack of body awareness as children and teens change at a rapid rate. Getting young athletes to listen to their bodies is crucial to help them understand the difference between “a good hurt” (expected soreness that comes from challenging muscles to get stronger) and a “bad pain” (discomfort that persists beyond normal with regards to intensity, frequency, or duration of symptoms).
Main Goal #1 for every parent is keeping your child’s best interest and long-term health a priority. Here are a few ideas to help your kids safely participate in their sports.
1) Perform a pre-screen: In addition to getting a regular sports physical with your pediatrician, have your child go through a functional screening test to assess potential problem areas that can contribute to a higher injury risk. This test should be performed by an expert that specializes in biomechanics and exercise prescription (physical therapist, chiropractor, etc), and should emphasize elements of flexibility, strength, and stability (such as a functional squat or single leg balance activity). The best time for pre-performance screening is 4-6 weeks before the season in order to allow time for your child to work on home exercises to address any limitations.
2) Avoid specialization without variation: Performing the same sport all year round may sound like a good way to get ahead in the game, but the opposite is true. Alternating activities through seasons and cycles can reduce the risk of repeated use injuries and mental burnout. Ideally, athletes should sign up for one team and one sport per season, with participation limited to 5 days a week.1
3) Warming up & cooling down: Before working out, it is important for student-athletes to “unwind” the tight muscles that have been in a shortened position while sitting in school all day. Also, research has found that a dynamic warm-up will better prepare an athlete for activity than static stretching. 2 Performing sport-specific agilities should be a part of a warm-up routine to prep the athlete for activity. Save the static stretching for the cool-down phase to help reduce excessive soreness following practice.
4) Perfect practice makes perfect. Paying attention to technique is vital for injury prevention. Once you lose form, it’s easier to get injured. Many athletes learn best through a “see it, practice it, review it, repeat it” sequence. There are neat tools such as the “SlowPro”3 app, which allow a coach to video an activity and then replay it in slow motion to assess any breakdown in technique.
5) “Stabilize before you mobilize”: All dynamic movements should be initiated through the “core” which includes the front and back side of the torso. A weak or unsteady trunk will eventually lead to injuries of the spine or limbs! However, many “core” exercises are performed lying down which is not the position in which most people play sports. Encourage your kids to practice standing balance activities to mimic functional movement (example: stand on one leg and stabilize the trunk as you reach or kick with an arm or leg… it requires coordination to bend/reach/lift/kick with proper core control.)
6) Ask for attention: Encourage your kids to speak up if they feel “off” or sustain an injury. Sometimes a momentary modification is required to ultimately boost performance. If your child feels unable to keep up or perform quality technique, a discussion with the coach or trainer should take place. Most kids aim to please, but a constant pressure to perform or a fear of disappointing others (parents, coaches, teammates, etc) will only become problematic and increase risk of lingering injuries in the long run.
7) Visualization to “see” good things. Research has shown that mental practice of a skill can enhance brain-motor control. 4 This can be performed preceding a performance or during down time after practice. Sport psychologists even recommend visualizing the environment the athlete anticipates competing in –from the cheers of the crowd, to the smell of the grass, to the breeze against the face.5 Encourage your kids to see themselves succeed!
8) Supportive equipment: Make sure your child’s gear fits appropriately. This includes having supportive footwear! Sometimes you can offload an injury with proper bracing or taping. Overall, if equipment is rubbing or sliding out of place, then other problems may occur such as blistering or bruising.
9) Heat or Ice?: A general rule of thumb is to use heat for stiff/achy muscles and ice for painful/ inflamed areas. Sometimes a contrast of the two works well to first increase circulation and then to control for swelling. (Try soaking in a warm Epson salt bath for 10 minutes and then place an ice pack on any area of concern for another 10 minutes.)
10) Remember to refuel & replenish: Quality nutrition before and after exercise is essential for optimal results. Help kids eat to compete by providing fresh foods that are good source of lean protein, and high in fiber, vitamins, & minerals. Prevent dehydration by drinking water early and often. If they become thirsty, they may already be dehydrated. Other signs include possible headache, lethargy, infrequent urination, or dizziness. Sports drinks are helpful to replace electrolytes for athletes engaging in prolonged moderate to high intensity exercise. If your child’s urine is light-to-clear they are likely well-hydrated. Dark-colored or bloody urine may be a sign of severe muscle breakdown and requires a visit to your medical doctor immediately.
If you have any questions about your young athlete or are afraid they are not getting the support they need to perform their sport safely and optimally, feel free to contact our office at 865-524-1234 and ask to schedule an appointment with Jamie. Jamie is a former Lady Vol who specializes in working with young athletes and children. She would love to help you get your child on the road to health!