Research supports the idea that sports diversification is healthier for young athletes’ still maturing bodies, but for some fitness specialists it’s hard to put a damper on genuine passion for an all-consuming athletic endeavor. “There are plenty of kids out there who are so focused that it’s hard to redirect them if they’re doing what they truly love,” says Dr. EJ Zebro, a chiropractor and strength and conditioning specialist who founded the Westport-based Train Away Pain, which offers a sports training and injury recovery program.
While a multisport approach may be the optimal way to prevent serious injury, the experts we spoke with say an emphasis on proper, personalized training and conditioning is the young athletes’ physical equivalent of an apple a day. Done right, it can keep them healthy and in the game. Here are the experts’ strategies.
EVALUATE AND PROTECT THE ACL
At Chelsea Piers in Stamford, the more than 900 kids involved in its competitive team sports are routinely evaluated for ACL injuries as part of its pre-season strength and conditioning programs, says Monica Conch, a master trainer there. “We were seeing in nine- to twelve-year-olds some real vulnerabilities,” says Conch. “We tend to think of them as immune to injury because they have such a broad range of motion. Yet they all have things they need to address through training to protect themselves and stay healthy.”
Evaluating and training to protect the ACL is good practice since current research shows that ACL injuries can be prevented with proper training. “A good program can involve things like warming up properly, lunges, plyometric moves, focusing on landing and pivots,” says Dr. Demetris Delos, and orthopedic surgeon at ONS in Greenwich. “Done consistently is the key; the data suggests participating in these programs has a real benefit.”
KEEP IT AGE APPROPRIATE
While children and preteens shouldn’t be doing deadlifts or hoisting barbells, there are sports-specific strength training moves that will help young athletes prevent injury by optimizing strength and agility. “They can do push-ups, agility drills like ladder runs, stretching and so many other things involving their own body weight,” says Todd Vitale, owner of the Division One Prep training facility in Greenwich.
RESIST THE PRESSURE TO FOCUS
“Kids are being told at an early age things like, “Stop playing that other sport because your focus is going to be basketball,” says Conch. “It’s okay to push back and play both. There’s a time you may have to get serious about one sport, but it’s definitely not when you are in elementary school or even middle school.”
One way to protect a young athlete is to focus training on movement that is not intuitive to a favorite sport, say Vitale. “The idea is to do things your body isn’t doing to make you stronger overall.”
For example, Dr. Moira McCarthy, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in Stamford, says baseball and softball players, and swimmers, who put a lot of stress on arms and shoulders, can benefit from training their lower body and core. “If your hips and legs and core are stronger, the joints in your upper body don’t have to work as hard,” she says.
Dr. Zebro cites lateral movement for soccer players, as does Conch for sprinters and long-distance runners. “There are sports that are so quadriceps dominant,” she says. “Getting that athlete to move another way can be so protective and beneficial.”
CONSIDER SPINAL ALIGNMENT
“You hear core, core, core all the time, but no one really talks about spinal alignment,” says Dr. Zebro. “If you can teach an athlete the proper way to keep the spine aligned from their sacrum to their pelvis, then you are going to prevent a lot of injury because everything else then moves properly around it.”
DEVELOP GOOD SLEEP HABITS
“It’s not discussed enough when it comes to preventing sports injuries, but sleep is when the body recovers, regenerates and heals,” says Dr. Zebro. “We need to pay more attention—just as we would with fueling the body—to how much sleep young athletes are getting. Way too often, it’s not enough.”
MAKE FUN A PRIORITY
“I often see kids’ bodies start to degrade when they are not having fun anymore,” says Vitale. “If a kid starts to seem that way, it may be time to take [a season] off. It doesn’t mean they have to stop their sport completely, but they may really need a mental—and physical—break.”
FOCUS ON BREATHING
“Learning how to breathe can help kids cope with anxiety on the field and even tune out all that noise from parents and coaches,” says Dr. Zebro. “Learning to breathe properly also refuels the body.”