When it comes to youth sport and injury prevention, it's important to realize every athlete is different, and certain measures should be taken to ensure your son or daughter is training appropriately for his or her musculoskeletal age.
"They're going baaaaaaaaaaack!" I can almost hear that silly commercial in my head whenever this time of year rolls around. Youth of all ages are heading back to school with their new backpacks, shoes and goals of making their preferred sports team and coming home with ample homework, excitement or, all too often, a new injury.
Youth sport is becoming more and more competitive each year and by the time kids enter high school, many of them will already have played 10 years of a single sport, if not several sports. With overlapping seasons, year-round competition, and play on multiple teams within one sport, the risk for overuse injuries is growing exponentially in young athletes, and they are even more susceptible at this time of year as they enter try-outs and a new sporting season.
A Quick Lesson
Why are kids in general more susceptible to overuse injuries? There are several reasons, some more obvious than others. The first (and hopefully most obvious) is they are still growing, and in this respect, Mother Nature has been a bit cruel. Different structures in our body -- mainly muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones -- mature at different rates, which lead to significant imbalance in many respects. Not only that, but each child matures differently. Example: Taylor and Roger are both 15-year-old hockey players, but that is where the similarities end (see photo). The extreme differences in their musculoskeletal maturity means they are going to cope with and react to training stress differently. This needs to be taken into account during competition as well as training.
The other reasons are slightly more psychosocial. Kids sometimes fail to understand the relationship between pain/discomfort or reduced performance and an overuse injury, and for many high-performance youth, there is endless pressure to play at the highest level and to do so non-stop. Succumbing to injury, especially an injury that isn't traumatic in nature, is unfortunately still frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness.
What Can We Do?
Have an off-season: This has been the most dramatic change in sport in the last 20 years. Children will now play one sport 12 months of the year. They need a break; I cannot stress this enough. Slowly now, even high-performance programs are beginning to understand the negative physical and mental impact the lack of an off-season can cause. Breakdown and burnout are becoming more and more prevalent in youth sport and need to be addressed.
Work out appropriately: Giving a player an off-season where they are able to perform exercises to address and correct imbalances, and improve strength and endurance in an alternate environment, will improve their ability and reduce their risk of over-training, both mentally and physically.
Early recognition: Overuse injuries progress through roughly four stages of severity. The earlier an injury is detected and dealt with, the faster the rehabilitation process. Identify there is an issue and then find a treatment provider who will help you manage the condition, as well as communicate with coaching staff.
Communicate: As your child returns to their sport, talk with them about how they feel. Are they tired, do they have pain, do they feel capable out there, etc? Create a no-pressure environment so they don't hide the truth. Communication between parents and coaches is also paramount to ensure everyone is in the injury loop and aware of the situation.
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We all want our youth to stay healthy and active, and organized sport can be one of the greatest learning tools in a child's adolescence. Teamwork, self-sufficiency, organization and education can all be indirect lessons accomplished by playing an exciting game, but we should all chip in by stressing the education part of this process. Preventing and treating overuse injuries and not pressuring these young players is a great way to start.
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