March 31, 2017

Optimize Your Off-Season to Prevent In-Season Injuries

Guest Post by Ryan Clifford

Ryan Clifford writes for Smash Academy in Vista, CA. He is a former National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer. In high school, he was all-state in football, wrestling, and track & field, in the state of WA.  He earned a football scholarship to UNLV, and received the Jack Gilmore Coaches Award in 2003.

Three preventable pitfalls derail far too many promising athletic careers: 1) Poor academic performance, 2) Injuries, and 3) Burnout. For today only, we will leave academics out of the discussion, to focus on injuries and burnout. Injury statistics among middle school and high school age athletes are sobering, to say the least. However, we can prevent, or at least minimize, the majority of sports injuries with proper training and preparation.

Most discussions about injuries are centered on improvements to equipment or rule changes. The problem is that both of those are beyond our control, and do little to help us prevent injuries today. However, proper preparation is your responsibility, and will help you avoid jeopardizing your athletic career from sports injuries.

You’ve worked your entire life to build a great athletic career and earn a scholarship. Do everything in your power not to be sidelined with an injury when it matters most.

Off-season preparation is absolutely critical to injury prevention. Its importance mounts, as high school athletes trend toward specializing in one sport. Healthy athletes require time outside of their sport to improve overall strength and fitness, beyond their sport-specific training. Many believe that the best way to improve sport-specific fitness is to play the sport, but this path commonly leads to overuse injuries and burnout.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, overuse injuries account for nearly 50% of all injuries in middle school to high school aged athletes, and surgeons report seeing four times the incidents of overuse injuries, since 2006 (Dr. James Andrews, orthopedic surgeon). That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can prevent both overuse injuries and burnout, with a disciplined approach to the off-season.

Here are 3 tips to optimize your off-season to prevent injuries:

     1.  Get in the gym

Strength training used to be discouraged for young athletes, but those myths have been debunked. Off-season strength training improves body composition, increases bone mineral density, improves neuro-muscular efficiency, and builds confidence.

 Cross-training can be playing another sport in the off-season, working hard in the gym, or both. In order to prevent injuries, we need to take comprehensive approach to training. The greatest part about this is that we not only reduce injuries, but athletes enter the season happy to be playing again

      2.  Flexibility (see: Stretching)

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of sports training, particularly among teenage athletes, is stretching. The top athletes in the world are incorporating increased flexibility training to prevent injuries, and improve performance. You should be, too. If you pull a groin or tweak a hamstring, often you only have yourself to blame. Force yourself to make stretching a habit and put real emphasis on stretching.

 Your new habit should go beyond before-after exercise stretching. Make stretching its own priority in your training program. Overall flexibility prevents dysfunctional movement patterns that often lead to injuries. We mistakenly believe that we only need to stretch when we exercise, but we really need to make it a permanent part of our overall program.

Pro Tip: Measure your progress the same way you measure your strength and speed progress.

      3.  Take a break from your primary sport

Play a second sport or incorporate off-season cross-training, in order to build muscle groups outside those used in your primary sport. In order to prevent injuries, we need to take a comprehensive approach to training.

The greatest part about this is that we not only reduce injuries, but athletes enter the season happy to be playing again. Burnout is yet another cause for derailed athletic careers and another reason to incorporate alternative training into your overall athletic program. Burnout is typically the result of boredom, misguided training, or undue pressure. Too often, coaches encourage athletes to limit activities outside of their primary sport, because of the risk of injury. At the same time, overuse injuries have increased 400% in the past five years. You need to ask- who is specialization really benefiting?

 Beyond the increase in overuse injuries, specialization dramatically increases performance pressure on high school athletes, because it feels like their entire future rests in one basket. We can ease both of these problems by simply incorporating outside training or participating in a second sport.