How to Prevent Injury and Improve Performance When Training Female Youth Athletes

Every time I visit a sports-related web site, I see more and more advertisements for personal trainers for young athletes; some are sport-specific trainers and some focus on speed and strength development. These ads target parents of children as young as eight and capitalize on the fanatical pursuit of college scholarships which has led to year-round sports teams for eight year olds, ignoring the fact that most eight year olds cognitively do not understand the spatial relationships necessary for most team games; hence the “bumble bee soccer” of under-eight soccer leagues .

Personal trainers have value, if they know what they are doing. However, many lack sound physiological principles in their workouts. I watched one trainer (whose true job was as a social worker) work with 10-12 players ranging in age from 8-18, all doing the same workout. Not only are eight year olds at a different developmental level than eighteen year olds, meaning either the eight year old was at-risk for injury or the eighteen year old was doing a workout well beneath his level, but the workout was unsafe in multiple ways. First, the players did box jumps onto an unstable metal bleacher that moved forward almost every time a player landed; more than one player barely escaped injury while just missing the edge of the bleacher with a knee. Second, the trainer had no idea how many jumps each athlete performed. Third, the trainer did the plyometric workout at the end of the training, when the athletes were tired, meaning they were more prone to injury and less likely to reap rewards, as one cannot build speed and power in a fatigued state. The key to plyometrics is a short amortization phase-the time between the eccentric deceleration from the drop and concentric action of the next jump and a fatigued athlete fails to maximize benefits of the plyometrics because he extends the amortization phase.

While a good trainer has value, many athletes benefit from a simple home workout. Young athletes, especially young female athletes who play sports which require quick changes of directions and landing from explosive jumps (soccer, basketball and volleyball), must train to prevent injury first, and build to improving one’s performance.

The four products I suggest to young athletes are a medicine ball, a weighted vest, a stability ball and a wobble board (at my web site, there is a link to a site where you can purchase these four products for under $150, or the cost of 2-3 sessions with most trainers).

These four products enable the athlete to train the lower body for strength and balance and train the core muscles. “Core training” is a popular buzzword in the fitness industry and it means different things to different people; however, training the core musculature-the muscles of the abdominals, lower back, hips, pelvis, quadriceps and hamstrings-improves overall strength. For instance, when a boxer throws a punch, he uses his upper body; however, his power comes from his lower body. The core is the region that transfers the power from the legs through the upper body. With a weak core, the boxer’s punch lacks power. The same is true of almost every athletic movement, as “core musculature not only provides the initiation of stabilization for the extremities, but also serves to transfer force for the legs to the arms and vice versa,” (Chek, 17). Weak core musculature is a factor in numerous injuries, as poor posture and reciprocal inhibition create poor neuromuscular efficiency.

The benefits of the following sample workout are stronger legs, greater neuromuscular control, better ability to apply power, reduced injury risk, increased vertical jump, etc. This workout concentrates on training movements, not just muscles. One error of many athletes’ workouts is an emphasis on working muscles in isolation. In sport, muscles work together to perform actions or movements. To get the greatest transfer from workouts to competition, specificity of training is important. There are reasons to lift traditionally, especially for athletes looking to put on size, but for female athletes looking to improve performance and reduce injuries, training movements is a more appropriate form of training.

Sample workout:
According to Miami Heat Strength and Conditioning Coach Bill Foran, “The best strength exercises for increasing the vertical jump are squats, lunges and step-ups. These are the best because they are compound movements, which work the knee joint and the hip joint at the same timeâÂ?¦Squats are the best exercise an athlete can do for strength if it is performed correctly.”

Start with a body weight squat in order for the athlete to learn the correct movement pattern. Many female athletes initiate movement by bending the knees forward; instead, the athlete must push the hips down and back, as if she is sitting in the chair. In fact, for beginners, squats onto a chair are a great teaching tool. Once the athlete masters the movement, begin challenging her with the vest. A vest is better than a traditional squat with a bar on the back because it spreads the weight over a larger surface area and does not load the spine. For a beginner, this is the best way to train. Once the athlete establishes a base of strength using the vest, change to the wobble board. The wobble board challenges the body differently than the vest and works the stabilizers in the legs while building tendon and ligament strength in the ankles and knees. Finally, incorporate the vest and the wobble board, adding another element.

Lunges are another great body exercise. Once the athlete learns the movement pattern of lunges in different directions-front, backward and side lunges-she can add the vest to challenge the neuromuscular system. Also, the athlete can add different elements to the lunge. A simple addition to work the shoulders is to use the medicine ball and do a lunge and press. Start with the medicine ball under her chin, and as she steps forward to lunge, she pushes the ball overhead. As she returns to the starting position, she lowers the ball back to her chin. Additionally, a lunge and reach is a good exercise. Start with feet together and ball overhead. As the athlete lunges forward, she reaches with the ball, keeping elbows extended, so the ball extends in front of her front foot. As she steps back to the starting position, she raises the ball overhead.

Core Training
Using the stability ball, the athlete trains the entire abdominal complex, not just the rectus abdominis (the six pack). First, the athlete does a crunch on the ball (as she sits, her body should form a ninety-degree angle at her hips and her knees if the ball is sized correctly). Concentrate on initiating the movement with the abdominals and crunch forward. Next, lay with stomach on the ball and hands and feet on the ground. Work the erector spinae (lower back) by raising the opposite arm and leg; so, raise the right arm and left leg together and then alternate. Finally, roll out on the ball so shins are on the ball and hands are on the ground. From this starting position, roll the knees into the chest and back. This works the transverse abdominis. Finally, grab the medicine ball and sit on the ground with feet in the air. Rotate the ball from side to side, working the obliques.

Each piece of equipment can be used to make the push-up more challenging. The vest adds weight to a normal push-up. The ball can be used to challenge the athlete through its instability. As with the knee roll-in, the athlete places shins on the ball and rolls out so hands are on the ground and, from this position, performs push-ups. A more difficult version, and one which challenges the stabilizers in the shoulder, is to place hands on the ball and do a push-up from this position. A similar exercise, using the medicine ball, is to do an uneven push-up, with one hand on a medicine ball and the other hand on the ground; after each repetition, push the ball from hand to hand, so the athlete alternates which hand is on the ground. The athlete can use the wobble board with hands on the board, to do a push-up. And, finally, the athlete can combine two pieces, doing a push-up with hands on the wobble board/medicine ball and feet on the stability ball. This trains the core and the upper body.

These are just a few of the exercises an athlete can do using these pieces of equipment. Each is a full body movement that incorporates the entire body rather than isolating a muscle. The benefits of these workouts are stronger legs which increase performance while minimizing risk of a season-ending injury like an ACL tear.

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