Non controversial statement of the day: we want kids to excel at whatever they try their hand at, and we want them to be able to keep at it for a long time. That said, you hear horror stories all the time of youth athletes being told that their injury is so bad that they will never be able to return to their favorite activity. The last thing anyone wants is for their child to get hurt doing something they love, so what can we do? What should we look out for to keep our athletes on their feet and moving? Here are some of the best tips I can think of to make sure that health and safety don’t get in the way of anyone’s dreams.
- Watch for overwork and overuse. There are some great guidelines out there for almost every sport and activity that you can look up from various sports medicine institutes, because too much of a good thing can exist. Young throwers who overwork can end their careers before they ever even have chance to try out for varsity, jumpers can ruin their knees before the end of high school. So how much is too much? Well that’s a hard question with a lot of answers. For throwing sports, a common guideline is a pretty low number at around 50 total throws on practice and game days, and making sure there is at least a day’s rest in between those days. But, regardless of type of sport, the high intensity, high volume activities that make it up like throwing in baseball players, or jumping for dancers, will usually need a day of rest at least to make sure everyone has the right opportunity to recover.
- Incorporate split techniques in your programs. Now a competitive kid might feel like you are short changing their opportunity to practice with numbers that low, but when it is a battle between longevity in the sport, it’s hard to love a game you can’t play anymore. You can use off days for other things that still build skill though! Dancers need those slow form walk throughs for technique just as much as they need to jump high, soccer players need that fine control just as much as they need kicking power and running speed, and baseball players need to get out and run to work those legs just as much as their arms need work. Splitting days in regards to body parts just like professional lifters do can save a lot of strain in the long run while still allowing kids to feel that edge from practice isn’t wearing off.
- Cross Train! Speaking of alternative ways to build up your child, learning new sports and rulesets can keep everyone from getting stuck inside a box. Messi isn’t the greatest just because he has technique and speed, he can also out think almost everyone else on the pitch. The more kids expand, the better they seem to be at their chosen sport. I will still what many others before me have said: if you kid’s coach wants them to be a single sport athlete, it’s not your kid they’re looking out for. Rounded athletes in youth end up better in the long run at their chosen sports anyway, and sports with different strengths and focus areas can prevent that one area of the body from getting overused as well! Plus, it keeps us from getting rusty in the off season!
- Focus on form. It’s not just what we do, but how we do it after all, and as the old saying goes, only “perfect practice makes perfect.” How our arms move in throws, how our knees move in landings, where our hips line up in kicks, these can all both optimize how well an athlete produces good power and how healthy they are. We’ve seen some good early work that shows that focusing on landing form can decrease the likelihood of ACL tears in basketball and volleyball players. If you’re not quite sure what to look for, that’s just fine! That’s quite literally what trainers live for, and a lot of schools are hiring Athletic Trainers to fill the gap so you don’t even have to look far from home!
- Take at least one full rest day a week from training and practice. Overuse injuries happen in adults too, so this goes as much for active parents as it does for young competitors. We can build as rounded an alternating program as we can, but having a full day to build back up will never stop being important. We are all, unfortunately, only human. Kids seem to have an endless supply of energy, but those little cells still break down just like ours, and it’s good to give them at least one full day to recover all the way so they don’t develop symptoms of something bigger.
- Respect those symptoms. While we’re on the topic, when they happen it’s important to take them seriously. If your child’s form is looking off and asymmetrical from what you are used to seeing, if they are expressing pain or rubbing a limb, or if they are starting to miss things they normally don’t (strange landings from jumps, shots and throws that are slower or less accurate than normal), check early and check often. I cannot tell you how many patients I see who tell me that they regret waiting for the problem to get bad before they got help. A quick check to make sure everything is fine is worth a lot in the long run, and if things are lasting more than a week or two we’ve hit a good signal that it’s time to do something. It very well may be alright, and I’ll be the first to tell you if it is off the bat, but I will never criticize any of my patients or their families for being too careful. I’ll definitely congratulate you if you caught something early though! It will save you a lot of aggravation in the long run, and keep your athlete on the field for longer.
- If you don’t know, ask! You are the parent, but you don’t have to do this on your own. Dieticians, Athletic Trainers, Physicians, and Physical Therapists had to go to school for all of this, and we’re always here to help! You don’t usually go into our fields unless you love people after all. Building a training regimen, making sure your athlete is getting all the nutrients they need, and knowing where to find all of the researched numbers can be daunting and we understand that! Prevention is half the job for us, so if you ever need a consult or discussion, give your local experts a ring! As always, we’ll be there to help guide everyone to be their best and healthiest.
Good luck to all your young stars, we look forward to seeing great things from them!
Alec Martinez, PT, DPT
Hohman Rehab and Sports Therapy