At the start of fall sports season, many athletes develop “unusual” injuries. Coaches, parents and the athletes themselves usually seem surprised at these injuries. But they really shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the number of drastic changes that occur during the transition from the activities of summer to the rigors of fall sports seasons and the challenges faced by fall sport athletes. Some of these factors are predictable and manageable, some less so.
In most cases, the injuries probably could have been prevented or avoided. Awareness of the impact of dramatic changes, better preparation and even wiser and more attentive coaching could reduce the number of injuries. That, of course, would mean more athletes able to play football, soccer, volleyball and other fall sports.
Here are some of the fall sports injury factors, along with some of the injuries that often come along with them:
1. Inactivity to activity (or change of activity type and intensity) – many athletes spend the summer “training” for their sport by attending “non-mandatory” practices and informal training sessions to improve their sport-specific skills. Summer leagues, clinics, combines and the like are becoming increasingly common, but do little to help the athlete prepare for the rigors of the preseason practice period and the grind of the season.
The problem? None of this is true physical conditioning. While skills need to be improved whenever possible and team unity and cohesion are worthy goals, the most important task of the off-season is to prepare the body for the rigors of a long season and the pressure-filled, high-intensity, full-speed sport environment about to be unleashed.
Core strength, systemic strength, speed, agility, quickness, balance, coordination, power, dynamic joint stability and other aspects of the “athletic skill set” must be honed and improved if the athlete expects to perform at a high level throughout the length of the season.
Most skills lessons or clinics are performed at relatively low intensity levels. This is the nature of the learning environment. “Captains Practices” (you know, the “non-mandatory” sessions your young athlete feels compelled to attend) are nearly always poorly organized and too often run by a 17 year old varsity player with little or no knowledge of the kind of science and application that is needed to prepare an athlete for fall sports.
As a result, the athlete spends time “training” at low intensity levels in an environment that is focused on production of movement instead of improving the quality of movement. Alternately, they have been working out in an environment that does almost nothing to improve the athletic skill-set. Endurance suffers, as does the ability of the body to resist injury.
Even worse, some athletes spend the summer doing what many of us would love to do – hitting the beach! No workouts, no prep at all. In light of our discussion here, not good.
Add to this the “all at once” nature of the onset of the spring sports season and you have a recipe for injury. Typical injuries of this type include low back pain, joint soreness and muscle strain.
2. Change of surface and/or change of footwear – Many athletes spend the summer in flip-flops, sneakers and only occasionally do they don their cleats or actual playing shoes until it’s time to begin practice.
Grass surfaces have varying degrees of hardness and change drastically with the weather. Turf surfaces vary one from another and also change with the weather. Athletes often are required to move from surface to surface even during the same practice session. When the weather is bad, they may even be moved inside onto wood, tile, sport floor or sometimes even cement floors. This frequent change of surface plays havoc with the ankle, knee and hip joints.
The reason for this is due to the varying degrees of joint stabilization required on various surfaces. Athletes who do not decelerate or who exhibit poor levels of dynamic joint stabilization will feel this more than those who do.
Improving dynamic joint stabilization is not something that “just happens” during summer practices, team sessions or as a result of growth. A coach once looked me in the eye and asserted exactly that – in that fall season, he witnessed 4 ACL tears and 12 other lost-game injuries.
Those injuries could have been prevented if that coach had simply taken seriously the discussion we had about ways to improve his teams fitness level and their injury resistance levels – all in the same workouts and in less than 2 hours per week!
Dynamic joint stabilization is improved using a training program that incorporates a stable-to-unstable, slow-to-medium-to-fast and linear-to-multi-directional stimulus progression. In reality, the “systems,” if they exist, governing most formal and informal “training sessions” your kids will attend are the chaotic-to-no-plan kind or the run-them-into-the-ground-then-do-drills-until-we-run-out-of-time variety.
Typical injuries associated with this reality include knee injuries, shin splints, ankle injuries and in some cases, hip and low back injuries.
3. Overuse and fatigue-related injuries – Fall sport athletes go from casual, infrequent “practice” sessions to a 6 or even 7 day a week schedule instantly. Hours per week related to sports practice will rise from as few as 2 to 6 hours a week (maybe even none) to as many as 20 hours a week with literally no phasing-in period whatsoever.
It’s the equivalent of starting your car in sub-zero temperatures and racing out of the driveway at 100 miles per hour without a single second of warm-up time. Combine this with the problems created by poor off-season conditioning and that car is headed for a catastrophic breakdown.
Compounding this issue is the fact that even in the 21 st century, so many sports coaches seem to remain “old-school,” believing that more is better. More practice hours; more time running long distances or useless drills, more time spent pounding on each other and repeating the same activities ad nauseam; more time spent getting cold on the sideline while small numbers of players scrimmage.
Fall athletes also are dealing with the onset of “hip flexion overload.” All summer, they’ve been free to move around at will. Working, going to the beach, going to team sessions and other sports related activities all allow the athlete the freedom to stand upright and move around using the body’s biggest and most powerful driver – the glutes! Hip extension is freely expressed and enjoyed by the athlete, even if they’re unaware of this particular liberty.
Suddenly, they’re shoved into a school desk, with its cramped seat and minimal room to move. They spend 6-8 hours a day sitting with the hips flexed at 90° ( Hip Flexion). Since sitting is the repeated command received by the brain during this time and the hips are flexed at 90°, the brain simply recruits the most available and optimal muscles to maintain the sitting position. In this case, it’s the hip flexors, hamstrings and spinal erectors. For the intended purpose, it’s a very efficient combination.
The problem? It’s essentially the exact opposite of the muscles the athlete’s brain needs to recruit for effective and injury-free sports movements!
Hip extension is crucial to sports movement. Running, jumping, changing direction and deceleration are all hip extension-driven. When athletes have sufficient levels of hip extension ability, it also helps prevent a myriad of injuries and conditions. Knee, low back, hip and even, to an extent, ankle injuries can be reduced if hip extension is well-developed.
As if that’s not enough, the weather conspires to make things worse. When practice starts, it’s relatively warm; by the time it’s over, temps have often dropped 20 or even 30 degrees. Most of our kids dress for the beginning of practice and are shivering, tight and hurting by the end.
Overuse/fatigue injuries often include shoulder, elbow, back, neck, hip and knee pain or injuries. Many times, fatigue and overuse manifest as a general malaise with symptoms much like those of a mild, lingering flu: muscle aches, joint pain, occasional fever and sniffles or cough.
4. Plain old bad (under-educated, overworked, under-resourced) coaching – The onset of the digital generation has made it hard for abusive coaches who run or play their players into the ground to keep their jobs, but a few surely have snuck under the radar somehow.
Your kids may be suffering at the hands of an abusive or just bad coach if they have to attend long (3-4 hour or more in some cases) practices where they get little coaching attention and little or no opportunity to improve their skills, if the coach uses physical activity (running, push-ups or other exercise) as punishment for every infraction, real or imagined or if the coach allows hazing to go on without interruption by the coaching staff.
More likely is that your kid is playing for a coach who is well-meaning and a decent person. However, he or she is overloaded, overworked and doesn’t have access to the resources needed to condition your kids properly.
Coach has to get the team ready to play. That means an emphasis on skill development and coordination, teamwork and making sure everyone is on the same page while on the field or court. Conditioning all too often becomes an afterthought. It’s poorly researched (if at all,) not done by anyone with real knowledge or expertise and is often done “the way we’ve always done it.”
I believe that most sports coaches are decent people who want the best for the kids in their charge. Circumstances, however, may often lead to an environment in which injury is likely to occur.
The fall sports season is in full swing. Unfortunately, so is the fall sports injury season! But it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Awareness of the injury risk factors can help you avoid common injuries, play longer and maybe even get noticed.
Keep the faith and keep after it!