Monday, July 02, 2012
My youngest son Robbie ran into the mother of a middle-school classmate the other day. The classmate had played soccer into high school and her younger brother had also been a soccer player. The mom was shocked that Robbie was still playing. "Hasn’t your body worn out?" Seems that Bridget had had multiple knee problems and Connor had a raft of injuries as well. Eventually they just couldn’t play any longer. It’s a story I hear quite often. Both of my sons have avoided major injury. Robbie broke a foot bone in middle school and then had an ankle strain last year. Bryce broke his hand, but was back playing three weeks later (don’t tell his hand surgeon!). So what makes some kids literally wear out and others keep going like a soccer energizer bunny?
Obviously genetics plays a role. Some people are put together with less elasticity and end up tearing, rupturing and breaking without much provocation. There are things they can do to improve their mobility and stability, but ultimately they are prisoners of their construction. Overcoming an unforgiving body may require serious surgeries and long periods of recuperation. Pitcher Chris Capuano had two Tommy John surgeries and is 9-2 this year, but he’s an exception and the jury is still out if he will be able to sustain his good health. For the most part, athletes have to have a lucky combination of skill, game smarts and a willing body. Lots of kids may possess the first two and strike out with the third. It’s one significant factor that prevents excellent players from continuing to play.
Every player needs to respect his or her body early in the process. That means following a regimen that maximizes the body’s health. While most youth players won’t be moving on to college or professional ranks, it never hurts to grow up with a body that will allow for significant activity well into middle age. Since kids aren’t going to independently latch onto healthy body training and upkeep, it’s up to us parents to help the process along. As our kids grow, they will hopefully have developed habits which will maintain their body strength and flexibility. Likewise if they have any injury they will have the ability to heal quickly, minimizing the stress on their body and absence from training.
First and foremost, eating healthy provides bones, muscles, ligaments, lungs and heart to be at their peak level. Starting kids on fruits and vegetables as early as possible means they develop not only the habit of eating them, but also the taste buds that enjoy them. Using fruits and vegetables as rewards teaches kids to associate pleasantly with cucumbers rather than seeing them as the enemy. Focus on protein-rich foods as opposed to carbohydrates. While we need carbohydrates in a balanced diet, most kids eat nearly twice the recommended daily allowance. Make carbohydrate choices which offer some fiber such as whole grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal and whole wheat pasta. Most nutritionists say that a well-balanced diet provides all the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients a child needs. Most supplements are an expensive way to get what a good meal provides on its own. Certain vitamins such as A and D can actually be toxic if the dosage is too high. Eating healthy also means hydrating properly. No matter the temperature, level of exercise, or age, all children need to drink during activity. So be sure to hand that water bottle to your child as she sprints to the field.
Preparing the body for exercise is extremely important in maintaining the proper flexibility, stamina and protection. I rarely see teams of 6 to 9 year olds warming up and cooling down before and after a practice or a game. Older teams will often skip the cool down as everyone is anxious to leave the field and get home. But experts tell us that these two activities do more to protect the ligaments, muscles, heart and lungs of young bodies than any other training. Dynamic stretches in which the players progress in slow controlled movements through the full range of motion were established in research by P. J. McNair (2000) and D. Knudson (2001) to be the most appropriate exercises for the warm up. By contrast, they found that static stretches are more appropriate for the cool down. Warming up reduces stiff muscles, allows for more oxygen in the muscles, brings the heart slowly up to an exercise rate, increases blood flow to and through the muscles, and stretches out muscles and ligaments slowly rather than with sudden movement. Cooling down removes lactic acid from the muscles which helps reduce cramping and sudden contractions, reduces the pooling of blood in the extremities which can lead to dizziness and fainting, allows the heart to return slowly to its resting rate and protects against delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) which can come from erratic contractions and ultimately injure the muscles. Clubs should require full warm-ups and cool-downs for ALL teams for both practices and games. Appropriate exercises can be found online at a number of websites such as bettersoccercoaching.com, soccerxpert.com, and footy4kids.co.uk. If your coach doesn’t do these pre-and post-soccer event exercises, then print off a few and bring them to him.
Listen to what your kid says about his body. Kids seem to be born with a preternatural ability to be hypochondriacs, but they are the best judges of how they feel. One thing to watch out for in particular is DOMS (see above) which could be a red flag for muscle problems. If your child seems to be fine after a game but one or two days later complains of intense muscle pains it could indicate over training or large muscle tissue damage. This should be checked out by a doctor and the player should stop training. Pay close attention to complaints about knees and ankles. Sometimes kids will talk about how their knees feel like they are weak or could pop apart. That could indicate damaged ligaments and/or tendons. Girls seem to be particularly prone to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. However, there are exercises that players of any gender can begin early on to both strengthen the ACL and other knee support material (see livestrong.com and aclinjurypro.com). Choosing the right cleats can also help reduce stress on the ACL when running and turning. Less common but linked to ACL is the medial collateral ligament (MCL). Exercises to strengthen the knee in general will definitely improve the health of both the ACL and MCL. Knee pain during exercise along with a popping or clicking in the knee could indicate a medial meniscus tear. Often once the exercise is over, the pain disappears, although there may be swelling of the knee. Again this needs to be checked out by a physician. Finally, ankles take a great deal of abuse during soccer so heed any ankle pain your child experiences. There are a number of tendons which can become inflamed and then irritated by rubbing over the bones during exercise. The best treatment for this tendonitis is rest and ice treatment which is to put an ice bag on for around 15 minutes, remove, allow the area to warm up and then repeat it three to four times for the first two days after the injury. If the pain persists a doctor’s visit is in order.
Eating right, preparing properly for exercising, doing exercises to strengthen body parts integral to the sport and listening to aches and pains don’t have to wait until a child has decided to focus on soccer. These actions should begin before any player even sets foot on the pitch and continue throughout his or her life. You can’t change genetics, but you can help overcome genetics through some well-implemented lifestyle decisions that we parents have to begin for our children. It will never be enough that our kids have talent because they have to perform through the instruments of their bodies. If their bodies fail them, then all the talent in the world won’t move them ahead. Giving them the opportunity to play has to go hand in hand with teaching them how to maintain the equipment needed to play.