Fall sports are underway, and with the right preparation, young athletes can enjoy playing their sport to the fullest, while also minimizing the risk of injuries.
Don’t Rush It
A good strategy to promote sports safety is through a gradual increase of activity. A “spike” in activity (period of rapid increase in the volume and/or intensity of training/exercise) can lead to injuries. To avoid this, a few approaches can be taken:
Leading Up to the Start of Formal Practices
- First, the activity level of athletes should be gradually increased leading up to formal practices, so that when training begins, they are already at an activity level comparable to the demands of practice. In the weeks leading up to practice, young athletes should be encouraged towards and given the opportunity for free play and sports. At this stage it’s better to be playing for fun, like a pick-up game in the park or the driveway, than to play competitively on a league or organized team.
Once Practice Starts Again
- Continue to apply the gradual increase in activity principle once formal practice has started up. Parents and coaches can work together to ensure that the volume and intensity of training begins at a level comparable to the fitness level of the athletes on the team, and progresses at a reasonable pace.
Getting the Team to the Same Activity Level
- Not everyone on a team may be fully prepared to engage in practices. If possible, adjusting training to match the various players is optimal. This can be achieved by identifying those athletes who are less prepared and having them initially practice with less volume and intensity of drills than those who are well prepared. Over time they can advance and practice can be the same for the whole team.
Choosing Proper Footwear
An additional method of minimizing injury risk is through the choice of proper footwear. Use of good running shoes and wearing turf shoes when fields are dry and hard (rather than spikes) help to decrease the stress on the legs, hips and pelvis. To choose proper running shoes it is best to purchase them from a reputable store, with knowledgeable staff who demonstrate an understanding of running and the characteristics of the various brands and models they sell. They will know how to assess the athlete’s foot type and match it with the proper shoe options. Once obtained, the shoes should be used as long as they are in good condition. Once there is noticeable wear of the sole and/or compression of the midsole (soft portion between the fabric and the sole), the shoes should be replaced. Wearing turf shoes on dry/hard fields is beneficial because of the soft midsole, which like a running shoe, absorbs the impact forces each time the foot hits the ground when running. By comparison, cleats do not have a midsole. The foot is directly on top of the rigid sole and does not absorb shock when used on dry/hard fields. Cleats work well on soft or wet fields as they provide good traction to prevent falls. In these conditions the impact forces of the foot hitting the ground are absorbed by the soft field.
Proper Warm Up
A common question is how to warm up properly. This is best achieved actively rather than passively. Standard passive stretching does not prepare the body for sports participation, though it is useful as a method to increase flexibility after exercise (i.e. it is helpful to stretch after practices and games to improve flexibility). Rather than passive stretching, a dynamic warm up is the best way to prepare for sports participation. Light jogging, light agility drills and dynamic activities which emphasize flexibility such as high knee jogging, leg swings and inchworms, are the recipe for proper warm up.
Following these guidelines can help to reduce the risk of injuries, allowing the young athlete to enjoy healthy participation in sports this fall. For specific guidance, it’s always recommended to consult a physical therapist.
Joseph T. Molony Jr, PT, MS, SCS, CSCS is a board certified Physical Therapy Sports Clinical Specialist, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and Coordinator the Young Athlete Program at Hospital for Special Surgery. He is an internationally published leader in the field of Youth Sports Medicine.