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Stretching, Warm Ups and Cool Downs Prevent Youth Sports Injuries

A Disturbing Pattern

Ted was a goalie on one of my soccer teams. He was a strong and enthusiastic player who loved to play in games, but never seemed to have time to warm up before practice or games. He would arrive at each practice or game and invariably announce that he had stretched before he came and was ready to jump right in the goal. Having no reason--at least initially--to doubt Ted, I would ask my assistant coach to warm him up in goal.

The season I coached Ted, a disturbing pattern developed: at some point during every practice and game, Ted would get injured! At the end of the third game, I decided to ask Ted's mother about his injury history. She proceeded to rattle off a long list of his "war wounds': a broken leg at age 11 playing football, a broken hand, a broken arm, and so on. She also told me that Ted suffered, even at age 13, from a chronic back problem. When I asked her what type of exercise program Ted followed at home, his mother laughed and said his orthopedist had given him a half hour's worth of stretching exercises to do before each practice or game but he won't do them. It's an ongoing battle!"

A Back-Breaker

Before the next practice I took Ted aside and told him that he would not be able to practice or play in a game until he did his warm-up exercises with the team, because he would continue to get injured if he ignored this important part of the session. As a result, Ted was injury-free for the next two games.

I missed the next game, but learned soon afterward that in diving to make a save, Ted had smashed into the goal post and broken two bones in his back! I was not surprised to learn from my assistant coach that Ted had missed the pre-game practice and had not warmed up properly!

Conditioning And Rest

Neil Chasen, a physical therapist and expert in the field of biomechanics, specializes in helping young athletes understand and train their bodies for maximum performance. In his view "not all injuries are preventable, but sport specific strength training and adequate rest between games go a long way in preventing both serious and minor injuries."

"Prevention begins with conditioning. Assessing a player's individual performance characteristics, as well as those of an entire team, can provide protection from injury and improvement in endurance--and a competitive edge. To reach these goals, teams and individuals should consider special training programs to make players into better athletes," Chasen says.

Fitness Is Key

John Talbot has run a soccer aerobics course for a number of years. He teaches coaches and young soccer players specific exercises for better flexibility, strength and endurance. Talbot reports that teams that have incorporated his lessons into their overall training sessions have a lower rate of injury, even at the youngest ages.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that children and adolescents include fitness exercises during each training session to develop specific skills required for that sport. While fitness activities may be geared towards the strength, endurance and flexibility requirements of that sport, they should not exclude other components of a well-rounded general fitness program.

Mark Pierce, an athletic trainer and accomplished soccer player, notes that "whole-team assessments allow coaches to design training programs for an entire team and individual players. As the season progresses, this develops a more athletic and effective team. In addition to improving athletes' on-field performance, players are more durable and may avoid both minor and severe injuries by being in superior condition."

Start Early

Experts feel that proper training methods are important in the prevention of all sports injuries, for athletes of all ages. If children are taught from an early age how to warm up and stretch correctly, then they will know the importance of loosening up before any physical activity and it will become second nature.

The Ten Percent Solution

Pop Warner football players stretchingThe ACSM advises that "coaches of young athletes need to monitor the intensity of training, the length of the daily training period and any changes in specific skill techniques. ... Although there is no controlled scientific data available to define the best safe training progression, the 10% rule for increasing the total amount of training of children and adolescents has been found to be reasonable in clinical practice. Each week there should be no more than a 10% increase in the amount of training time, amount of distance covered, or the number of repetitions performed in the activity." Violate this rule and your child risks overuse injuries.

Warm Up And Cool Down

The ACSM recommends that training sessions include both warm-up and cool-down periods, something that is often overlooked by youth coaches. Flexibility exercises to stretch tight muscles are important for all sport and fitness activity participants, but should be mandatory, says the ACSM, for young athletes, who are growing rapidly.

Ask The Coach

Before the first practice, you should ask the coach for a list of all the exercises that he or she will be using. That way, you can have your child continue training at home and discuss with your child's pediatrician any concerns you might have about the exercises.