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Part 2: Preventing Youth Sport Injuries

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Here again are the four areas of conditioning/training for injury prevention that I feel are often neglected by many youth sports programs.

Functional Sports-Specific Training

This type of training focuses on developing an athlete’s strength, endurance, speed, quickness, etc. in the specific muscle groups needed for the best performance in the sport participated in. Most importantly, it forces concentration on the actual functioning of the muscles and joints used, making sure that muscles on both (all) sides of a joint are equally trained and that joint movement is well executed. What this does is create a good balance between all muscle groups involved, thereby helping to protect the joint from injury in addition to enabling greater efficiency and effectiveness of movement.

For example, if an athlete wanted to increase their vertical jump, they not only have to use exercises that increase strength in their quadriceps (front of thigh), gastrocnemius (calves), and gluteus maximus (buttocks), but also the hamstrings (back of thigh), hip flexors (front of hip), abdominals (stomach) and any other opposing muscle groups (muscles on the other side of the joints being used) of the positive, or work, phase of this movement. This should hold true for any physical skill you are attempting to improve.

Another important piece to functional sports-specific training would include using exercises that mimic what the sport requires. For example, soccer includes sprinting as well as jogging/positioning phases to the game, along with all kinds of lateral, backward, and vertical movements. So it really does not make a lot of sense for soccer players to heavily train using steady long distance running as a core part of their program. That is not what they do in games and should hold a lot less importance than would wind sprints or any other type running that includes all types of previously listed movements (forward, backward, lateral, vertical). Please keep in mind that my lists are not comprehensive and are only examples used to help with understanding. I certainly do not claim to be an expert in soccer training.

Core Strengthening

You need to pay special attention to training the core areas of the body. They include the muscles of the hip/pelvis, lower, middle, and upper back, abdominal, chest, and shoulder areas. Their functional importance, and support, for all physical movements should not be underestimated. They are essential to keeping the body strong, in balance, and injury-free.

Think of this area of the body as the “foundation” for all movements of your extremities (arms, legs, head); the stronger the foundation (support), the stronger and safer the movement. In addition, the core is a key component in facilitating movement. The stronger the core the more efficient and effective the movement.

Proprioception

The term, and training for, proprioception has become much more common in recent years. The main idea behind this centers on its effectiveness for preventing injury. Basically, proprioception is a subconscious sensory ability of the body to keep track of or be aware of the position, location, orientation and movement of the body and its parts. For example, if the lower leg bone moves forward in relation to the upper leg bone while an athlete changes direction, they can damage or tear their ACL. It is this sense of proprioception that aids in contracting the muscles that oppose this lower leg bone movement and helps protect the knee joint from this type of injury, and it is done without the athlete being conscious of it.

So the question then becomes how to train this ability. It really is not as hard as you might think. Anytime you put your body in a position where it has to keep a joint stable, you bring in this proprioceptive component; thus training it. Just balancing on the ball of one foot for one minute brings out this basic component of fitness. Other examples would include balancing on a wobble board, Bosu Ball (½ ball on a disc), or balance disc, lateral and/or forward/back jumps with bands or tubing (around lower leg and attached to stationary object), single leg cone jumps, and training using an agility ladder. In fact, any time you add some type of balancing while you are training (even throwing a medicine ball back and forth while on a wobble board) helps add this dimension.

Note: Just type Proprioceptive Training or Balancing Equipment for Proprioceptive Training in Google to gain more access to information on this topic. Just check your source to make sure it is reputable. You can try these links for starters:

Proprioceptive Training

Proprioceptive exercises training program by Owen Anderson

Training for Proprioception & Function by Suzanne Nottingham

Prevention of ACL Injuries with Proprioception Training from BurceBrownlee.com

Equipment ballsnbands balanceproducts

Flexibility

A good sound training program will always include some type of flexibility maintenance (if flexibility is good) or improvement. Having strong, flexible muscles that have the ability to react instantaneously is definitely an advantage when it comes to preventing injury.

A good time to work on your flexibility is right after you have completed your other training while muscles are warm with good blood flow. It can be used as the essential part of the cool down phase of your workout. Just make sure you spend a good 30+ seconds on hold time for any muscle you are stretching. The most common mistake I see with flexibility work is that athletes don’t spend enough time on the hold phase of the stretch. Gymnasts will spend a good 10 - 15 minutes just stretching their legs in the variety of splits type positions they use in their sport. Personally, I like to stretch a muscle to the point where I feel it reaching maximum length (just as you start to really feel the stretch, but before pain) and then hold that position for 30+ seconds. Then I contract the muscle during the stretch (either with a partner’s help or against a stationary object) for a count of about 5-8 seconds. Upon relaxation, I stretch the muscle again for 30+ seconds repeating this procedure about 4 times. I will then move to the opposing limb for the same stretch.

Of course maintenance type stretching will not take as long, but if you want to increase your flexibility or range of motion (whether in the shoulders, neck, back, hip, legs, ankles, or wrist), you will need to dedicate some time to this. A good 15 - 20 minutes after every training session should be sufficient. However, the more ranges and joints you need to stretch, the more time you will need to dedicate.

Here are some references that may be of interest:

Flexibility Training Section from the Sports Fitness Advisor

Stretching the truth: stretching exercises before or after? from the Sports Injury Bulletin

I know, at first, it might seem like an enormous amount of time (over and above) the normal practice time you already invest in order to complete a sound and safe conditioning program that includes injury prevention. However, almost all of what I have referenced and discussed above can be put in place and combined with what you are currently doing without an excessive increase in time commitment. Even combining skill drills as part of your conditioning/training can be very effective for both skill improvement and prevention of injury. It just takes a little creative thought on your part to come up with possible combinations that will accomplish skill improvement, conditioning, and injury prevention all at once. Think of it this way, how much more time (and game time missed) will it take to surgically repair a torn ACL, and then rehabilitation time, just to get you back to your previous competitive form? Is it really worth neglecting this important aspect of training?

Much of what I have written in this two-part article is only a starting point for the prevention of injury. There are so many different exercises, and purposes behind those exercises, that it is impossible to cover everything in a blog post. Whole books have been dedicated to proper training mechanics with whole sections just on injury prevention. My hope is to just get you thinking about its importance, give you some direction, and hope that you take the initiative to make it happen for yourself.

All references selected in this article were chosen based on my knowledge base only. I cannot vouch for the credibility of the links; however, they do seem to have good information and all are a good read. Please take the time to do your own research, securing the credibility of the source on anything you find before embarking on any type of training/conditioning program.


Kirk Mango
Becoming a True Champion