Overuse injuries are a lot like stepping on dog poop: the more you ignore there’s a problem, the more it’s going to stink.
I mean, come on…ever stepped on dog poop before?
Chances are, you have. And you have done this because you weren’t aware enough to realize there was a problem: poop on the ground.
So you stepped on it.
And after realizing it was too late, you either:
1. Continued to walk with the poop on your shoe and endured the rancid smell.
2. Cleaned your shoes, but still had the remains of the poop and the smell for many days to come.
Or, you were smart, found a new solution, and purchased new shoes.
But it took accepting you had to give your old, favorite dog-pooped-up shoes away in order to move forward with your life and get a fresh start.
Overuse injuries are a lot like this.
The below image gives us a bird’s eye view of an inflamed Achilles tendon. This issue may not be evident to an athlete until they are sidelined.
And just like the dog poop on your shoe, overuse injury can prove to be an unseen, sticky issue, unless you take action and do something.
And I know it’s jarring to hear this, but stopping year-round soccer, cutting back on extra skills training, not attending shooting clinics in the off-season, or gasp, stopping daily long-distance jogging…you pick your poison.
Maybe these solutions sound radical to you. Maybe they make your gut wrench. Or maybe they trigger you.
Good. Because what you’re currently doing is sure the cause of numerous overuse injuries I have seen rise immensely in the past several years as a coach:
– IT Band Syndrome
– Stress Fractures
– Patellofemoral Pain
– Sever’s Disease
– Chronic muscle soreness
– Irritation of Growth Plates
…And these are just to name a meager few. It frustrates me that these happen to growing, maturing 10-14 year-olds.
So how do they happen? What does overuse even mean?
Wait, do you know what it means? Or are you tossing around the term like it’s a kale salad in Portland, Oregon?
To better understand overuse, you have to understand the human body: it’s not symmetrical. Everyone has weaknesses, asymmetries and compensations.
Behold: the above diagram of the average human, who has a weak anterior core, glutes, hamstrings, and lower trap and serratus anterior. What’s worse is, this doesn’t even touch on the left-to-right side asymmetries where people favor one side of their body over the other.
Take this jacked up human, or in this case, a developing kid, and throw them into the good-old-year-round single sport, where they don’t have the opportunity to correct these weaknesses, turn themselves into strong, resilient beasts, or recover properly.
Instead, it’s wear, tear, and wear and tear some more. And all of this is happening on top of dysfunction.
And maybe in the summer off-season they have time to work on their weakness to get stronger, but wait: there’s tournaments, mandatory club practices, Combines, 7v7 high school leagues, and so much more.
And honestly, I don’t care how strong a kid is, because sometimes, the year-round rigor is enough to break even the most resilient.
Here is a video explaining how:
Anyway, I’ll step off my podium. You get the point: I’m worried as hell. But you should be, too.
Alas, there is a light at the end of the overuse tunnel. To provide some hope, I need to bring Dave Gleason back into the mix so he can give you actionable solutions.
So just like Frodo inviting Samwise on a journey to Mount Doom to destroy all evil…err, I mean overuse, take it away, Dave.
Thanks for the opening discourse Erica. Overuse injuries are no joke, as you and I know all too well by what we see on a day to day basis in our programs.
As Erica alluded to…you can’t see overuse, until you do. Absence of pain does not equate to a green light to continue on a path toward almost certain destruction. It’s critically important to remember this point.
Another unfortunate scenario I’ll use as an analogy is the concussion. A concussion can’t be seen by anyone yet the signs and symptoms are already present. Just as any concussion cannot be taken lightly nor can the prospect of overuse and the fact it’s a primer to injury.
This article could very well be expanded 4,000 words of what to do and what not to do. Injuries will happen and there are plenty of reasons why and ways to prevent them.
REMEMBER THIS: more games, practices and even strength training sessions don’t make a player stronger.
Before the silent rage of “what the hell did he just say” invades your consciousness, let me explain.
The work doesn’t make you stronger, rest and recovery after the fact does. Simply put, training and match play break the body down. Rest and recovery allow the body to adapt and heal, to some degree, stronger than it was before. When this process is allowed to happen over long periods of time dramatic changes can take place. But don’t be fooled, it’s much like watching grass grow. It takes patience.
While specifically discussing overuse injuries I’ll try my best to clear the muddy waters.
Without one, the other doesn’t manifest itself in any benefit. You’d never rest an athlete for 5-6 days per week followed by one day of training, would you? Of course not, that would be ludicrous.
There’s no exact formula as to how much rest recovery a young athlete requires these days because of the scheduling demands of year-round sports…and growing human beings are too complex. How wonderful the world would be if that were the case though.
The advice I give my athletes and their parents is primarily 3-fold. Breaking such a complex issue into just 3 thoughts is simpler for them to digest and in generally easier to comply to.
Focus on the Long Term
This is a paradigm as much as a call to action. Athletes, parents and coaches MUST remember that development happens overtime. Loads and loads of time for that matter. The presentation of a crash course in skills training has already proved irresponsible and one of the leading causes of overuse injury, burnout and drop out.
Would it be shock to you that, depending on the study, that statically 70-75% of all young athletes are dropping out of youth sports by age 13?
There’s no need for the volume of practices and games that players are enduring and the increase in overuse injuries is a sure sign of it.
Taking physically immature, growing and developing children, into the abyss of early specialization and fear based mandatory 4 day per week practice sessions all in the name of what!? What’s the pot at the end of the rainbow?
Moms and Dads can support their young players by reminding them that they have plenty of time to grow into the player they want to be. Coaches can help by not engaging in fear-based conversations about playing time, taking time off etc. As of today, the system is broken. Working together in the best interest of the children at risk can help spark change.
Emphasizing a long-term approach will positively affect their physical and mental health. If a player loves the game as much as they say they do, backyard practice will prove it.
Rest when you can rest
The landscape is not going to change, at least overnight, so here’s a concrete way to help avoid overuse injuries.
When the opportunity arises to rest…use it!
When you do have a break from the action make sure you take advantage of it. For instance, in between games at a 2-day-3-game tournament use your time wisely. Eat nutritious food (as you should most of the time), replenish with water and put your feet up and rest.
Feeling the effects of too much of your favorite sport? Take a break. Part of your journey is navigating when its in your best interest to skip a practice or even a game for your overall health and long-term success.
REMINDER: Young athletes often maintain a schedule far more grueling than that of a professional. Building in time to chill, read, be with friends and laugh, and go to the beach are critical.
Rule number 1…have an off-season.
From my education and 25+ years of coaching children age 6-18 I say with confidence this is the bane of evading overuse injuries. It makes it extremely difficult to engage in multiple activities never mind take the time needed to recover from long arduous seasons.
The year-round nature of youth sports is one, if not the biggest, promoters of early-specialization as well. With a reported 70-90% increased risk of injury due to early-specialization, a child’s “love and passion for the game” is not valid excuse.
There is no analogous situation where a parent would allow for such an increased risk of harm to their child. Time to be a parent.
One of my most successful athletes had a USTA ranking of #2 Nationally while taking every winter off to play basketball for her school. She later went on to have a stellar tennis career for the North Carolina Tarheels. She nor her parents would yield to the fears of falling behind. Instead they prioritized health and long-term development over short-term success and the status of ranking.
Having an off-season away from a primary sport will be the most powerful thing that happens in the overall career of an athlete. Take the steps necessary to ensure this happens.
Rule number 2…execute off-season training.
Paramount to becoming as injury resilient as possible is off-season strength and conditioning. A proper program will consist of the following:
- Muscle tissue quality (Foam Rolling)
- Muscle Activation
- Coordination Training (including speed and agility)
- Systemic Strength Training
The details of this list of non-negotiables is dependent on the athletes needs. Enveloped within a quality program will be the opportunity for a young athlete to circumnavigate growth spurts as well as find a new-found efficiency and proficiency with their movement patterns.
All of this adds up to a stronger, faster, injury resistance beast the next time they take the field.
Sport itself does not make an athlete faster or stronger. Building a strong foundation of athleticism will allow them to be the best player they can be.
After all, if they’re sidelined with an overuse injury they aren’t getting any better at their sport, are they?
All of this takes consistency over time.
Think of your bank account.
Making deposits to your account ever so often is great. However, when you only do so over a short period of time or inconsistently your account will take forever to grow. You know this and would never expect a mysterious windfall on your balance statement.
With bank fees and withdrawals there will be no doubt of a dwindling nest egg.
Consistent deposits over time will accrue faster as well as provide the benefit of compounding interest.
Inconsistency with everything I’ve mentioned so far will generate less permanence in ability as well as a plateau of improvement. The end result is far too frequently overuse and by extension overuse injuries.
However, an honest effort in these three areas will be money in the bank!
For more on how to train youth athletes and prevent overuse, get The Total Youth Soccer Fitness Program.