A question for athletic coaches and trainers everywhere is: how can we do a better job protecting and preserving our athletes for the long term?
Whether athletes are in grammar school, training for the Olympics, or in professional sports at any level, coaches and trainers with healing knowledge are needed.
Trainers and coaches who seek to prevent injury and depression, provide tasks that build knowledge, awareness, attention to detail. These coaches come to the job with pure heart. The nature of athletics provides the athlete with feel good hormones and this overshadows many pains, and personal challenges.
To reach peak performance, athletes require mental strength, functional mobility, acquired skills and God-given talent, not to mention time to develop. But what really allows individuals to reach their full potential is excellent coaching.
Most coaches begin with the basics–athletic stance, how to run, how to jump—and perhaps even proper breathing techniques. But how can we help to balance the overuse of the athletic body to maintain functional symmetry? Is it possible to teach athletes about anatomy and about how the body works at the same time, so that they can better manage their own health?
Of course, at the professional level, athletes do receive all this required attention, support, maintenance, and instruction, and they also can focus full-time on making themselves great at what they do. NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, and any olympic level athlete has a team helping them.
But what about athletes in high school or even younger?
In these critical learning phases, younger athletes rely with nearly total faith on the coach or instructor, assuming that their mentors are considering everything that would be in their best interest to grow and excel.
However, too many coaches at this level lack the even basic knowledge to keep these young athletes safe from unnecessary injury.
More than eighty percent of high school athletes I treat arrive with injuries, over-tight bodies, and often the inability to perform basic life functions, much less to perform as athletes. In trying to learn about them and assess their situations, I always ask about their training schedule and its demands, what the stretching regimen is and how their coaches proactively set them up to flourish.
The answers are surprising. With few exceptions, coaches seem to be pushing kids beyond what is healthy or even reasonable. Those excesses are then compounded by not equipping these young athletes with the tools they need to repair the consequences. The long term well-being and individuality of each athlete is too often being overlooked.
Every athlete needs to unwind the muscles that they are tightening in their workouts. But while workouts, especially in swimming, are often excessive, few younger athletes are being taught to stretch properly. And the younger the athlete, the more problematic this becomes, since their bodies are still growing and their growth plates developing.
Without release regimens or even education on how to self-release, this continued strain tightens the body and results in tears, sprains, pinched nerves, loss of function, or broken bones. Stretching is rarely a component of young athletes’ routines. Yet stretching is vital for overall performance and indeed for the basic health of every human. Other critical factors, like diet, are usually not discussed, and little consideration is given to the specifics of home or school life. The mental and overall health of the child or teenager suffers as a result.
Young athletes, already facing the increased stresses of today’s world, are being overworked and underserved in their efforts to achieve physical prowess.
Under such conditions, for these aspiring athletes, rising in age and seeking opportunities to play sports professionally, the injury list is long. Problems that were unresolved early become hidden by new injuries as well as by more pains and body aches.
The NFL has recently highlighted the seriousness of such injuries. Players are breaking ribs and in severe cases even puncturing lungs, as with Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints in 2020.
Concussions are a critical concern for NFL players.
Few appreciate the dangerous bi-products of concussions: midline shift and the moving of the hemisphere of the brain, as well as long term effects, like potential strokes.
While pro athletes often push through the problem or numb it out in order to stay employed, a young child may not even recognize the dangers–until the body stops functioning properly.
Just recently a high school football player was removed from the field and put directly into an ambulance with a fractured C-4. That is a vertebrae in the neck or cervical spine. The solutions for this via surgery will likely prohibit this child from playing sports ever again.
Coaches have a critical role to play in taking care of young athletes. And there are many reasons, structural and individual, why coaches so often fall short in this task. But we can start by focusing on the essential knowledge for athletes of any age and then applying that understanding to the specific needs of each young athlete in our care.
Understanding the chess game of the body’s injuries and misalignments is critical. Reading a body and understanding the mind of the athlete are the first steps to identifying how to solve the obstacles to performance or recovery.
We know, for example, that the body and brain heal with rest, and that stretching and good nutrition are perquisites for rest—as well as meditation and morale-building from the coach and the training environment. But what happens when the athlete cannot truly rest, that is, enter REM sleep for the minimum required time? Arthritis, swelling in the brain, inflammation, and more result. For an athlete’s real health and recovery, coaches must consider all such aspects of healing and know how to achieve them.
Athletes then Coaches
Great coaches are themselves lifelong athletes, learning and caring about bodies. The result of that educated care for the whole picture of an athlete’s life is the positive morale that makes for winning, well-balanced athletes.
Morale in team sports is everything. When individuals are pushed hard but not truly cared for, morale plummets. Just to be a well-balanced, healthy person takes attention, discipline, and education; and this demand increases for athletes.
Two types of athletes exist: there are the naturals or hard workers, with a chance for winning scholarships and participating in a sport as a future career. And there are those who are simply experiencing a team environment, getting exercise, making connections, doing something healthy.
In both cases, care and maintenance are required to stay in the game, for this season and for years to come. The key factor is the guidance and knowledge of adept coaches.
Let’s go back to the basics, like stretching. Why does stretching matter?
For earlier generations, kids spent time on bikes, climbing trees, running outside, and being active all the time. Nowadays most kids are inside, using electronics, being overburdened with school work, carrying excessively heavy backpacks, distorting their postures, and eating like crap. And some don’t even have physical education in school, much less a stretching routine.
In high school sports, there is little education or knowledge about the importance of stretching to prevent injury and optimize performance. Swimmers, for example, with two-a-day practices, spend next to no time stretching before or after their workouts. And I have not yet met a high school swimmer who stretches on their own—except the ones I have convinced to do so.
There are more injuries in sports for younger athletes than ever before. Sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition, faulty sleep patterns, stress, and the lack of stretching or warm up activities—all are contributors. The injury rate in some high school wrestling teams is more than forty percent in a calendar year.
So where are the solutions? Not so easy with the current trends of screens first and health second, if at all.
We can begin with educational programs for schools, coaches, and parents, in order to teach their young athletes how to value being healthy and balanced.
But holding young athletes accountable to a program long enough for them to see the results from their efforts is also crucial. Athletes who develop the desire for self-care will yield better performance and staying power when they put their health first. This is how we need to play the long game.
What needs to be included in such a program?
Depending on the sport, there are relevant stretches to keep the primary muscles and functional movements working well. This has to be the top and most important tool to keep athletes both healthier and optimized to perform.
Proper sleep and diet, workouts to complement the sport, and the often-forgotten ingredient for recovery, rest–these are the basics for reaching peak performance. Rest, in particular, is often not seen as beneficial, so it isn’t promoted by coaches in team sports. And diet is another challenge, with so much intake of food on-the-go, filled with sugar and poor nutrition. Young athletes need help learning to sleep and eat well.
If you are lucky, your kids may encounter great coaches who do pay attention to these details for the health of their teams and your child. But sadly, the majority do not or are not qualified to coach in ways that protects long-term health. Many coaches, especially of young athletes, are underpaid and undervalued; many are volunteers.
Few have the access to better knowledge and the ability to implement higher standards.
As an athlete, therapist, and healer, I hear the stories and see the painful realities for athletes at all levels, and I believe it is vital to spread the word that we must pay more attention to improving the health of all athletes at every age and level.
The health problems start young, and we must begin with the school systems and club sports to improve care for athletes. Movement and exercise are essential, but we are steadily removing these elements from formal education.
Recesses have been slowly removed from the school day, shortened in time or eliminated altogether. This is criminal! Children are not robots; they are living balls of energy, needing physical expression. Physical education used to be a prized activity for many of us: we could discharge all that static energy from sitting down all day.
It has been said the invention of the chair was the worst thing for human health. We were not meant to sit down so much, even though we all do—even children.
We all have same goals as athletes when it comes to maintaining basic physical and mental function. The breakdown of the body is caused by inactivity, poor nutrition, and minimal exercise or stretching. The breakdown of the mind comes from too little exercise, poor nutrition, too much stress, low morale or spirit, and lack of care.
We must care! Movement is key. Athletics are great for everyone, offering a needed tool to help kids navigate stress.
In the absence of school-driven physical education, team sports become crucial. But children also need education about how to achieve and maintain healthy bodies and minds as they grow into themselves or become athletes. It is time to return to the basics of health education in schools so that our children can thrive and remain active and alive as functioning adults.
“Great coaches, educated in how to build a child’s mind and body with tools that keep them moving and healthy for the long term, are a blessing for everyone.”
To the athletes of the world, God bless you all with good health and all the great coaches you can find!