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Stretching Before Sports: Muscle Length Before Muscle Strength

Improves Performance, Prevents Injuries

Every sport places its own unique demands on the athlete's body. A baseball shortstop, for instance, must be able to extend his body horizontally to snare a ball in his glove before it shoots through into the outfield, pop up quickly, cock his arm and throw a strike to first base. Soccer players - other than the goalie - can't use their hands, depending instead on the ability to kick a ball accurately as much as 50 or 60 yards. A golfer needs a combination of muscle strength and quickness so that all of his body's energy is transferred to the head of a golf club in order to launch a little white ball over 300 yards .

No matter the sport, however, they all ask the same thing of an athlete's body to achieve success: the ability to lengthen to produce the most mechanically efficient and productive motion.  To do that, muscle length needs to come before muscle strength.

For example, if a soccer player wants to kick the ball farther, he can do one of three things: increase the speed at which his leg strikes the ball, run at the ball harder, or try to bring his leg back farther before kicking.

  • To bring his leg back farther, the hip and thigh muscles have to stretch enough to get the leg back.
  • Because the hip/thigh muscles are attached to the pelvis/spine, if they aren't able to stretch any further, the force of stretching will be transferred to the back instead.
  • If the back extends backwards, the center of mass moves back with it and when the ball is struck, the body's full force is not pushed into the ball, maximum force won't be transferred to the ball and distance and and accuracy will suffer.
  • If a muscle cannot stretch, then the body will alter its position to accommodate for the tightness. Tight and stiff muscles force the body to alter its ideal position, decreasing the generation of maximum force, accuracy, efficiency, and increasing risk of injury.
  • In short, to reach the body's maximum potential, the muscles of the body must be able to lengthen to produce the specific movement required for that sport.

Advice for Sports Parents

Why is this information important to parents of athletes?  Because what is suggests is the importance of stretching.  In other words, making the muscles longer so they work more efficiently.

I have to admit that, when I was an athlete, I rarely, if ever, would stretch before games or during training. I would never put any emphasis into it because I thought it was only for "gymnastics" or "martial arts." While sports like baseball, football, basketball, and soccer may not seem to require as much flexibility as those sports, I have come to learn that stretching is an important part of the sports training process.

As a parent, I recommend that you do your best to encourage your child and her coaches to incorporate stretching into sports. This topic often requires more attention because athletes find it "boring" but, in the end, proper stretching can help prevent injuries and maximize performance.

My advice is to emphasize the maximizing performance aspect because the advice that stretching prevents injuries often falls on deaf ears. How do I know that? Because they were once my ears.