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Returning to organized youth sports, safely

By The Health News Team | May 14, 2021
Baseball players sitting on the bench

Organized sports are resuming across the country for youth of all ages. It’s important that returning athletes prepare and condition properly to reduce their risk of injury.

“Young athletes are eager to return to both individual and group sports after more than a year of inactivity,” says Dr. Jonathan Halperin, a physiatrist — a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation — who works in the division of orthopedic medicine at Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “As the transition to more competitive activity begins, it’s important that returning athletes start out slowly to avoid injury.”

Training back to fitness

Training should be at a lower level of exertion than in the previous season. An ideal situation is to start at 25% of their normal workout or practice time for the first week. After that, young athletes should incrementally increase their intensity and time of participation over the next 3 to 4 weeks.

Young athletes should also train in the appropriate skill set for their sport. For example, a baseball pitcher should work on throwing mechanics before throwing competitively in practices or games. The risk of any injury increases with rapid progression and poor mechanics. It is also beneficial to strength train and flexibility train with an athletic trainer if available.

Higher risk for overuse injury

Returning to playing organized sports is not like flipping a switch. Any athlete returning to a sport after a long layoff is potentially at higher risk for an overuse injury or acute tendon, ligament or joint injury. In addition, younger athletes, who are skeletally immature, may lack significant strength, conditioning and flexibility. Younger athletes may also risk injury to growth plates (elbow, hip, knee or ankle/foot) joints with a sudden return to activity.

Overtraining to ‘catch up’

Young athletes may be at a higher risk for injury if pushed too hard, too fast. By overtraining or in an effort to “catch up,” athletes don’t allow their body to adjust and recover. Any athlete, especially younger, should anticipate taking up to 6 to 8 weeks to begin to develop the same level of conditioning, flexibility and strength they had prior to a long layoff.

COVID-19 safety protocols

Appropriate COVID-19 safety protocols should be part of any safe return to sports. Social distancing should be maintained if possible. Athletes should wear a mask when doing light drills or during coaching sessions. In addition, they should not share the same equipment or water bottles to avoid accidental transmission. Travel should also be minimized if possible.

“With an extended time away from sports, deconditioning and intense activity could lead to higher risk of injury,” says Dr. Halperin. “Youth athletes should start out slowly and work on strength, coordination, sport-specific skills and flexibility prior to returning to the same level of competition they were at prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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