Youth Sports Injuries: Can They Be Avoided?

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Warmer weather is here and spring has officially arrived in Central Texas.  It has brought with it the smell of fresh cut grass and the eager anticipation of kids and adults returning to the ballfields in search of fun, competition and sports glory.  The excitement is palpable – from the cheering and chatter of the parents in the stands, to the kids lacing up their cleats for the first game of the season. However, there is a darker side to these activities…the rapid rise of youth sports injuries.  Injuries have always been an aspect of youth sports engagement – from scraped knees to sprained ankles and broken bones. But the more insidious rise in youth sports injury statistics is a large number of overuse and traumatic injuries, the more serious of which can require surgeries, extended rehab, and potentially long lasting effects.  (Check out this website for some sobering youth injury stats.) How can you assure that your son/daughter is able to enjoy sports participation rather than getting injured and spending the summer going to medical appointments and sitting on the sidelines?  Here are a few suggestions:

Be Informed:  We live in a world that is inundated with information, statistics and articles.  It can often be overwhelming or difficult to know which information is accurate and valuable. Whether it is information regarding appropriate protocols for baseball pitchers’ pitch counts and rest days or signs to be aware of for recognizing concussion symptoms, there are multiple valuable articles and sites to have on the radar.  Pitch Smart is a great website with advice and pitching protocols developed by orthopedic sports specialists from around the country.  This program has been implemented by multiple youth baseball organizations.  Similarly, Heads Up, which is administrated by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has great information regarding youth concussion prevention.

Complete Pre-Season Conditioning:  A gradual build-up in endurance and strength to prepare for the rigors of the season is a great way to avoid early injuries.  Developing the appropriate muscle memory and conditioning through practice, repetition and gradually increasing intensity of activity is necessary for the body to accommodate prior to jumping right into game speed situations and physical demands. There is a reason that professional athletes practice and get themselves in “game ready shape” for several weeks or months prior to playing their first official game.

Avoid Early Specialization: With the invention of select/club teams, personal trainers and individualized coaching, there is a strong allure and at times also pressure to “specialize” in a sport at an early age.  This trend over the last 10 years has been one of the primary links to the increase in youth injuries as specialization results in muscle imbalances and consistent high demand without appropriate rest on specific muscle groups that are still in the developmental stage. It seems that the days of moving from sport to sport with the seasons or through recreational play with the kids in the neighborhood has been replaced by playing one sport year-round, with ever increasing levels of competitiveness and organization.  While some degree of specialization may be appropriate for late adolescents (16+ years old) to enable them to develop elite skill levels, early specialization has been heavily linked to overuse injuries:  up to a 75% higher injury risk for single sport athletes in some studies.  Early specialization has also been linked to psychological stress and burnout in multiple scientific studies.  This situation should mostly be avoided, and instead replaced with a more diversified approach that emphasizes fun, teamwork and training in a variety of skillsets and motor patterns.  This will ultimately develop a more well-rounded and resilient athlete, and hopefully one that will continue to enjoy sports throughout a lifetime of recreational activity.

Emphasize Proper Mechanics: Mechanics refers to proper motor patterns and muscle memory, which allow athletes to perform movements efficiently and safely.  Development of these motor patterns happens with training through repetition done correctly.  This concept applies to everything from a pitcher’s wind up motion and arm position to correct knee position during jumping/landing in volleyball/basketball players.  Playing at high intensity beyond the onset of fatigue, or playing while performing multiple repetitions of an activity with poor mechanics significantly increases the potential for injury.  Are you unsure if your young athlete is mechanically sound?  Undergoing an evaluation by a physical therapist who understands the mechanics of the athlete’s sport and attending off-season injury prevention or conditioning camps can be beneficial to correct impairments before they result in injury.

Monitor Fatigue:  Fatigue is the primary enemy of sound mechanics. Monitoring pitch counts, snap counts, minutes played, and repetitions performed are all good baseline considerations for coaches/trainers to be aware of.  A specific count should not, however, completely replace the subjective observation of a players diminishing performance or loss of sound mechanics as fatigue sets in.  This type of observation should necessitate a rest period. Fatigue can also result in slower response times and poor muscular stability – both of which can also lead to increased injury risk.  Athletes are notorious for “pushing through pain/fatigue”, and often it is a primary job for the coach to recognize these increased risk signs and make appropriate substitutions.   Parents should also inform themselves about the effects of fatigue and monitor for performance deficits and other warning signs in their young athletes.

Protect Time for Proper Rest/Recovery: For every sports season, there should be a corresponding “off-season” during which to recover and/or perform cross-training through another sport or activity. No sport should last indefinitely and be played year-round in an organized and competitive fashion.  Competition places a high demand on athlete’s bodies, and respecting the necessity for a recovery period following seasons of competition is vital.

So, armed with these suggestions, get out there and have fun enjoying the spring sports season whether you are competing yourself or cheering on your young athlete. Injuries inevitably happen, but avoiding unnecessary risks so that you don’t spend unnecessary time on the sidelines is a priority for everyone.  If you are recovering from an injury, are not currently able to perform to your desired level of activity, or would benefit from a preventative assessment or baseline concussion screen, please call and set up an appointment with a physical therapist today.  The therapists at Symmetry are here to assist you in reaching your goals and being able to actively enjoy the activities that you are involved in.  Have a great Spring!

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