School sports are a great way for youth to stay fit, build positive character traits and have fun. But as with adults, it’s important that young athletes take the time to warm up properly to reduce the risk of injury.
“A dynamic warm-up can better prepare the body for activity than stationary, or static, stretching by gradually increasing blood flow and temperature to the tissues that are used in sports. Dynamic exercises are more effective than static exercises to ‘prime’ the body to perform strength, power, endurance and agility-related activities,” says Shane McClinton, P.T., D.P.T., Ph.D., OCS, FAAOMPT, CSCS, associate professor of physical therapy at Des Moines University and a physical therapist in the DMU Physical Therapy Clinic. He also coordinates the DMU Running and Cycling Clinic, which provides movement analysis, injury prevention guidance and rehabilitation services for runners, cyclists and triathletes of all ages.
Dr. McClinton coaches youth sports and incorporates dynamic warm-ups into team practices and the game-day routine. Dynamic warm-ups are becoming the new standard for most teams, and research is supporting the use of dynamic programs, such as the FIFA 11+, an evidence-based soccer warm-up routine, to help reduce youth injury risk and enhance performance. Dynamic warm-up exercises include controlled movements that move the major joints and muscles through their full range of motion, but they also can include agility, balance, plyometric (jumping) and strengthening exercises.
For example, walking like a “tin soldier” can dynamically move the hip while mobilizing the hamstrings muscles; skipping can get the body ready for jumping; cone or ladder drills can get the body ready to be agile; and planks or squatting can prepare the body to stabilize and produce force. While these activities can help prime the body for the sporting activities of the day, over the course of a season, they lead to improvements in strength, power, endurance, agility and balance that ultimately can reduce injury risk and enhance performance. For injury prevention, it is essential that proper movement mechanics is utilized – e.g., that the knees do not collapse inward when landing from a jump or squatting.
“Kids typically don’t get a lot of core strengthening, which can improve balance and help avoid injuries. And for any sport that involves jumping and landing, we want to teach kids how to squat and land properly to avoid knee injuries,” he says.
Screenings by movement specialists such as physical therapists can help athletes avoid injuries, too. The specialist may analyze how an individual’s knees move when jumping off a box and gauge his/her ability to hold planks or do push-ups in order to recommend exercises to improve technique.
“Individuals without good quality of movement can be at risk of injury,” Dr. McClinton says.
Of course, competitive sports involve more than maximizing performance. Dr. McClinton encourages the athletes he coaches to “give forth a good effort, commit to the team, have a good attitude and have fun.” Good nutrition and adequate caloric intake are important, especially for growing bodies. So is hydration – he suggests athletes consume water regularly during the day and 16 to 24 ounces of water one to two hours before practice. For post-exercise recovery, he promotes a diet with a three-to-one carbohydrate to protein ratio – “fortunately, chocolate milk provides that, and most kids like chocolate milk.”
Also important: “If you have an injury, make sure to rehabilitate it fully so that when you do get back on the field, residual impairments do not lead to another injury,” he says. “If you don’t recover strength or mobility, you can be at risk of re-injuring yourself.”
Dr. McClinton acknowledges that eager coaches and athletes may be reluctant to take even 15 minutes to warm up before practice. But the small investment in time can provide big dividends in improved performance and fewer injured athletes. Some athletes may need to do additional exercises on their own to work on individual weaknesses. This may include traditional static stretching, which is very effective for improving flexibility. So, even though dynamic warm-ups are important, there still is a place for static stretching, and it is important to not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to integrating dynamic warm-ups into a team or individuals warm-up routine.