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This is part 2 of my article, Youth Athletes and Over-Use Injuries, which has now turned into a 3 part article, about Youth Athletes and Over-use Injuries. Part 1 can be found here.

Adolescent athletes need to be able to function healthily and pain-free for the rest of their lives. No one in pain is as happy as when they don’t have pain. Shouldn’t health and happiness be the ultimate goal? The ever-growing problem of injuries in youth sports can be, and has to be, reduced.

Movement by Logan - Youth Athletes

I know from when I was younger and from spending the past 4 years working with this population, children, especially teenagers, live for the moment. They think their life is over when they can’t play in a game or a season, even though they will be better off in the long term for taking the time to address pain and injuries.

Specializing in one sport at a very young age is a strong trend nowadays. This is a bad trend that contributes to increased over-use injuries. A lot of children specialize in one sport, do not perform any in-season or off-season training, and play that one sport all year round. Specialization at such a young age leads to more repetitive movements, increasing risk of pain and injury.

In fact, most professional athletes were multi-sport athletes as they grew up, through high school…

“Asked every one of the pro baseball players who came in to train today,

‘What sports did you play in high school?’

Of the 30+ guys who were in, all but one played multiple sports in high

school. And, the one guy said that the only reason he didn’t play two was

that his parents wouldn’t let him play football.

It’s not a coincidence.”

– Eric CresseyCressey Performance (Facebook Status 11.17.2014)

Personally, I hate when I hear that athletes younger than 16 years old are only playing one sport all year around. In my opinion, that is doing nothing for that athlete, nothing except leading to either injury or getting burned out. Athletes, real athletes, are what colleges want to see; individuals that have the potential to make it to the pro level. They want athletes who can play multiple sports and adapt quickly to changing scenarios. These are the true “athletes”.

This article from lacrosse magazine highlights some college lacrosse coaches stating just that… “Why College Coaches Prefer Multi-Sport Athletes

Playing multiple -sports not only makes better athletes, it also teaches kids lessons in learning different skills. Some of the benefits include: working in teams with different people and personalities, learning different rules and different strategies, experiencing various roles that may range from the star goal scorer to the contributing defender, as well as helping to prevent over-use injuries.

So, what is a true Athlete?

Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders

Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders

An Athlete is someone who moves and adapts to external stimulus well, regardless of activity. Athletes have the following:

  • Good control of their body
  • Agility
  • Good body awareness
  • Coordination
  • A good combination of Strength, Mobility, Power, and Speed
  • Ability to quickly adapt to ever changing conditions and environments

Then the athletes who combine their physical skills with these mental skills have the most potential for success:

  • A good mental understanding of the game, strategies, and teammates
  • A good understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and limitations

Another misconception is that athletes will get behind if they don’t develop sport specific skills early on. This is simply not true. Sport specific skills can be taught more quickly than developing a higher level of athleticism. Think about collegiate basketball players that have switched to football in the NFL. For example, Jimmy Graham is now one of the best tight ends on the NFL, but he played 4 years of college basketball while only playing 1 year of college football. Sure, at first they are lacking some of the sport specific skills, but they have the underlying athleticism. Some make it and some don’t, but that’s when the knowledge, psychological, and social factors come into play.

Developing general athleticism takes proper growth and progression. Of course, some people are born with better control of their body and have quicker motor learning. But even the skills of the naturally gifted athletes can be further developed and nurtured into better athleticism to help improve their ability to play a sport, as well as reduce their risk of injury. This is the same for those who tend to be the smarter players, not quite as naturally gifted with the athleticism, but they understand the game so well and work so hard on improving their athleticism to the point where they can make it to higher levels. The smart athletes understand the importance of the efficiency, with the sport and with their bodies.

Bo Jackson

You may be thinking, but what about the soccer academys’ that the European professional clubs have in place. These clubs bring male soccer players to live at the academy at a young age to groom them into professional soccer players, with the hope of becoming multi-million dollar UEFA stars, such as Lionel Messi. These clubs are successful because they have systems in place to develop the players into athletes. They not only play soccer but the clubs also have many other programs in place to develop their athletes. This article delves into this further: What About the Single Sport Athlete? Specialization Part II

Remember, not all sports are created equally. Soccer is a sport that inherently has a lot of injuries because of the length of games, level of competition, high level of unexpectedness and, yes, the high amount of contact in the sport. However, it is a sport that incorporates a lot of different movements and requires a lot of athleticism, especially at a high level of competition. Sports such as soccer and basketball differ from sports such as baseball or gymnastics that require the same movements over-and-over. Whether you consider dance a sport or art form, it is another activity that frequently leads to pain and injury as it often promotes putting the body in very compromising positions, repeatedly. Also realize, not all of the children that enter the European soccer clubs make it big and I’ll bet not all make it through healthily.

Youth Soccer

For success, athleticism must be developed prior to sport specific skills. Motor learning is the adaptation of our brain and nerves to create learned circuits to move as efficiently as possible without having to think about the movements. This is how we know how to avoid opponents. Motor learning occurs quickly in the younger populations, but needs to be practiced. So starting to train young is a good thing….as long as it is done properly. Younger children may also require more practice than young adults.

You may think that since younger children require more practice that they should specialize in a sport, however requiring more practice actually backs that they should not. This means that young children need general movement training, remember athleticism must be developed prior to sport specific skills. As all movements must be trained, not just specific muscles or movements. Training of specific muscles is necessary for injuries, pain, potentially harmful imbalances, or to be able to properly perform the movements. But you can’t stop there; if you do, then you won’t achieve overall fitness and athleticism. You have to train full body movements in all planes of movement, rather than only one specific movement. For example, running is a sport, form of exercise, or activity that involves the same repetitive movement in one direction, forward. Running is probably the most repetitive sport and form of exercise we can do. So it is very important that runners train the body in other planes of motion: laterally, reverse, rotationally, and vertically. Training in these other planes of movement will improve running performance, as well as help prevent pain and injury.

(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16579665http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18339797)

Over-use injuries stem from performing the same movement over and over and over again. Over-use injuries are very common in all sports, including dance, gymnastics, soccer, and tennis. However, the most obvious example is with baseball. Throwing a baseball is one of the most stressful things you can do to a shoulder and if the shoulder isn’t working properly, the risk of injury is even worse, way worse. The repetition of throwing, especially as a pitcher, is harmful to the shoulder girdle and potentially the elbow. It’s the same movement over and over and over again. This is why there are pitch counts and rules in Little League baseball, to help prevent some of the injuries. But if a kid starts specializing in pitching at a young age and then plays on multiple teams all year round, that’s a lot of throwing. They are going to get elbow or shoulder pain, and possible structural damage. It is not going to work.

Little-league-pitcher

Human bodies are not equipped to handle the stress of the same extremely forceful movement over and over again. Adults bodies breakdown, we see it every season in all the major professional and college sports. Kids bodies are still developing. A lot of them are continually growing and their body systems are trying to adapt to keep up with the rapid changes in growth, hormones, school work, social changes, etc. but it’s not easy.

These young athletes’ bodies are breaking down rapidly over this short period of time. They need to be gaining strength, improving neuromuscular control, and learning to perform more efficiently. However, most just keep playing more of the same sport. Youth athletes need to learn how to use their bodies properly. They need to perform movements that take them away from positions and movements they repetitively perform during sports. This is true for everyone, athlete or not. If you spend any length of time sitting at a computer, then you need to spend time getting out of that mostly flexed position and get into an extended position. Same principles apply to athletes.

Also note, being over-worked, fatigued, sick, and trying to play at too high of a level will increase risk of injury.  I believe that it is important to have a good balance of training, sports play, school, and social/family life.  This is where a good team comes into place. Not a sports team, but a team made up of physical therapists, personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, medical doctors, sport coaches, and parents. All working together to develop the correct programs for the athlete to work on their specific needs to reduce risk of over-use injuries and to immediately address issues that may arise.

High School Football Washington Township 2002

High School Football Washington Township 2002

More about this in Part 3, as well as my personal experiences and My 16 Suggestions to for Youth Athletes, Parents, Families and Coaches.

– Shaun

Movement by Logan…every movement matters.

More than just the physical.