The Basics of Injury Prevention in Youth Athletes
By: Meggan M. Brunette, B.S., C.S.C.S., USA-W
With more and more of our youth athletes finding themselves in an increasingly competitive environment and early specializing in one sport and position, injuries are very likely to occur. Also, as training for youth athletes increases in intensity and duration, athletes will experience overuse injuries more commonly. This is due to the physical stress placed on their growing bodies when they are physically unable to handle such demands.
Improving physical conditioning and overall fitness helps to reduce the risk of injury in youth. For general prolonged health and injury prevention, all athletes must have a combination of muscle strength, power, endurance, body control, stabilization, flexibility, and endurance. I believe it is necessary to have a sports performance professional or doctor properly evaluate any young athlete before beginning a new program.
After conducting an evaluation of the athlete’s body movement and ability, I feel it is best for athletes to execute exercises through a full range of motion. Functional training and olympic lifting helps build the athlete’s foundational strength while more closely simulating activity and exercise they are participating in both socially and athletically. These types of exercise which promote power gains include multi-joint explosive movements such as power cleans or medicine ball throws through multiple planes. Strength must especially be increased gradually and progressively in youth athletes. When it comes to frequency of training, I have observed similar strength gains in children whether they exercise two or three days a week. For athletes new to training I usually recommend beginning with two strength workouts per week, performed on nonconsecutive days.
Athletes also need to design their training programs with an end goal in mind. I coach my athletes to regularly make both short and long term goals. Keeping these goals in mind ensures the progressions, frequency, and intensity of a program do not increase too quickly which can lead to overuse injuries such as stress fractures, shin splints, and tendonitis. For most of my athletes the end goal is to compete in college and even professionally. Many times I see athletes avoid the doctor for fear of being told they must miss practice or sit the sidelines during that ‘big game.’ This is a serious mistake that athletes and parents make as letting the injury go untreated can lead to injuries requiring further treatment and an even lengthier time off. Therefore, if the ‘big game’ is really competing at the professional level, take the time off now and focus in on what the long term goals are.
Balance and body control is primarily important to prevent injuries of commonly unstable joints such as knees or shoulders. These physical strengths are improved through a combination of change of direction exercises involving multiple stimuli. Multiple stimuli may include using ladders, hurdles, or varying visual and auditory cues. Practicing proper running mechanics and utilizing body control at top speeds also helps to develops motor skills. Practicing these skills in turn develops quick and safe reactions during training by constantly challenging the mind and body to process these varying types of sensory information. In addition to safety throughout competition, young athletes who possess adequate perception and motor skills also enjoy better coordination, greater body awareness, and a more confident self-image.
Flexibility is important for injury prevention as many strains and tears occur from an imbalance between length-tension and extensibility of muscles. Proper warm up and post workout stretching is very important and commonly overlooked. Although most youth athletes want to jump right in and start throwing the ball around or making those shots on the hoop, utilizing the benefits of a dynamic warm-up is best. A good dynamic warmup coordinates all movements by challenging the bodies flexibility, mobility, strength, and stability at the same time. Examples of exercises to include in a dynamic warm up are skips, high knees, butt kicks, lateral shuffling, or multi-directional jumps in combination with various stretches such as toe touches or multidirectional core rotations.
Endurance training for specific sports is important to prevent delay of onset fatigue. Delayed onset muscle fatigue describes a muscle soreness or muscle stiffness that occurs in the day or two following training or competition. As a collegiate athlete, the common term became to ‘get a visit from Uncle DOMS!’ This type of muscle fatigue can be greatly reduced by completing easy low-impact aerobic exercise directly following training or even the day after. This benefit is experienced by the increased blood flow through steady state endurance exercise. The increase in blood flow reduces that amount of lactic acid that accumulates in the muscle which then accelerates recovery. After an intense workout or competition, incorporate this strategy into your cool down routine for best results.
Clearly, rest is often the treatment of overuse injuries. Rest and recovery is important for growing youth athletes and especially necessary after intense workouts. Another good option would be to play multiple positions in a sport that allow the body to move through different motions and varying demands. Changing sports and training during the off-season is also a very good way to prevent overuse injuries.