Sports have become more competitive than ever before with students training longer and harder than they ever have.
Allie Rabinowitz, a Marlton soccer player at Rowan College at Burlington County, admits she feels an obligation to train and keep in shape during the summer. She says that every moment she’s not working out feels like a minute that she could be losing momentum, speed and skill.
As summer gets into full swing, student athletes like Rabinowitz are looking for ways to stay fit and competitive in their sport. However, as sports have moved more from single-season activities into year-round events, some experts say that athletes need to be careful about how they train in the off-season so that they aren’t overdoing it. This controversy of overworked athletes is nothing new at the collegiate level. A survey by the NCAA found that more than 75 percent of Division I baseball players reported spending “as much or more time on athletic activities” in the off-season as they did during the competitive season. But what is changing is that this phenomenon has made its way into the pee-wee arena. Young kids are training at increasingly intense levels. It’s important that students who are training this summer are putting safety first.
Dr. Adam J. Zucconi, a fellowship trained sports medicine specialist at Premier Orthopaedic Associates, says that the growing number of overuse injuries is likely occurring because of young kids being single-sport athletes from a very young age.
“Specializing in a single sport prior to high school age is setting a lot of these kids up for overuse injuries,” Zucconi says. “We’re finding that kids aren’t taking a break from their sport, even in the off-season.”
Dr. Gregory J. Goodworth, a diagnostic radiologist with South Jersey Radiology, sees patients at the time of injury, when they come in for imaging. He has seen a rise in overuse injuries in the pediatric population.
“We see a lot of ligament injuries and stress fractures,” Goodworth says. “Of course we also see a lot of elbow injuries that resulted from overuse—from throwing. The thing we worry about in these kids is that they will develop arthritis at a younger age. I’m getting more patients in their 20s and 30s that are coming in and already have significant arthritis developing.”
Trainers say that to minimize these risks of injury, it’s important to train smarter. Coach CJ Appenzeller, NSCA-CPT, of ATS Strength, says that the No. 1 thing student athletes training over the summer leave out is strength training. But he says that if athletes want to come back more prepared, they can’t leave out strength—regardless of the sport.
“A lot of athletes think that as long as they play summer sports, they’re keeping their skills fresh,” Appenzeller says. “But you’re also putting yourself at greater risk of an overuse injury. You do need to put in the time to build up muscle. Strength will not only provide some protection against injury but will help make you a better athlete.”
Zucconi agrees, saying that the safest way for student athletes to train in the offseason is not to play their sport, but to put in time for strength training.
“The off-season is when you build muscle and power,” Zucconi says. “For example, the off-season training for football should be more strength-based than speed-based. And the off-season training for baseball shouldn’t include a lot of throwing but instead should be working on the fundamentals; working on your strength and your core.”
“The off-season is a time to regenerate muscle tissue,” agrees Christian Lee, NKT, RKC, FMS, performance coach and owner and founder of Escape Fitness Center in Medford. “You need to get that strength back. A lot of kids do lose muscle and strength during the season and the summer is the time to build it back.”
Athletes should also keep their whole health in the forefront of their minds. Steve Fortino, a coach on the Marlton Soccer Committee, as well as a coach at Cherokee High School and part of the Flyers Youth Special Hockey program, has spent a lot of time working with student athletes. He trains five different soccer teams. But instead of just pushing skills, Fortino puts a lot of emphasis on both injury prevention and total body health.
“First and foremost is diet,” he says. “Student athletes need to eat healthy and continue to hydrate well in the summer.”
Fortino also emphasizes the importance of dynamic stretching—stretching as you are moving (the opposite of static stretching, such as reaching down to touch your toes).
“Dynamic stretching allows for blood flow to the muscles which improves muscle performance and improves recovery to any muscle damage,” Fortino says. “Dynamic stretching should actually come before any static stretching.”
Take a break
Of course, even the experts say that summer break should also be about taking an actual break. “Athletics can be incredibly stressful and summer should also be thought of as a time for rest and recovery,” says Lee.
Sports can have a big impact on students’ stress level. Rabinowitz admits she has experienced a lot of mental pressure from playing sports.
“I was seen as a talented player from the time I was 6 years old and as I grew older, my fear of disappointing my teammates, my coaches, my parents and myself grew stronger,” Rabinowitz admits.
A lot of students experience this type of self-inflicted pressure and Zucconi says he’s a big advocate for taking a “mental break.”
“It doesn’t hurt to have a plan and map out your summer with an actual calendar, designating which days you will work out,” Zucconi says. “You should fit in time for the Shore and doing things with your friends because in the real world there is no ‘summer vacation.’ Now is the time to enjoy it. Sports are stressful and you do need that mental break.”
While the pressure is there for a lot of kids, Rabinowitz says she is working hard to overcome it. “I have been training myself mentally to understand that as an individual player I cannot—nor am I expected to—carry a team on my own,” she says. “Teammates are there for a reason, and we all must rely on each other.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 5 (June, 2016).
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