As an athletic trainer and strength coach, I'm often asked how athletes can avoid injuries. Here are the best ways that I've found to prevent injuries in my athletes.
1. Perform a Good Dynamic Warm-Up
A good dynamic warm-up consists of many components, most of which are fine to use—assuming basic principles are applied. Exercises like Backpedaling and Carioca are great for increasing blood flow to the legs, but athletes should perform them at the beginning of their warm-ups. Your progressions should go from general to specific, basic to complex, low intensity to high intensity, and from needing less recovery to needing more recovery.
Observing this progression ensures that neuromuscular recruitment and blood flow are as close to optimal as possible, and that each athlete is put in the best position to perform well during training. Cold and immobile muscles and joints are at much greater risk for injury, so you want to ensure that your athletes' bodies are prepared to meet the demands of their upcoming workout or sport. Check out the video player above for a 7-Minute High Intensity Dynamic Warm-Up.
2. Move Better
Anyone (hopefully) can do a Lunge or Squat, but the quality of those movements can vary. If you notice an athlete's knees cave in when he lunges, he probably has weak glute muscles and is at a higher risk for a knee injury. During a Squat, if an athlete's pelvis tucks under before her quads are parallel, she might be putting her spine at risk. Knowing your athletes' movement limitations and getting your certified athletic trainer to help correct them are critical. This is why paying attention to your athletes during their dynamic warm-up is of particular significance.
3. Do Not Overtax the Central Nervous System
Olympic lifting is great. Sprinting is great. Plyometrics are great. Aerobic conditioning is great. Knowing how to implement all of them within the confines of a practice or training regimen is even better. The CNS can only take so much stimulation before it gets blown out. A common rule to go by is "high/low" training, first popularized by the great track coach, Charlie Francis. If one day is filled with heavy weight training or Olympic lifting, take care not to overstimulate during the rest of the training session. The following day's session should be a low day, or recovery day. Prescribe tempo method runs or circuit training with lighter weights.
When athletes have an overtaxed their CNS, they tend to look tired, don't enjoy training, train poorly, display cognitive deficits, have sore muscles and exhibit a general malaise that clearly shows they are not recovered. Remember that even though it may only take two to three days for muscles to recover from an Olympic lifting session, it can take the CNS up to 10 days to fully recover. If that trend continues, the athlete will end up in the athletic training room.
4. Follow Sound Strength and Conditioning Principles
Athletic trainers and/or strength coaches are in charge of getting athletes ready to train and improving their speed, strength, power and endurance. They must also correct deficits or imbalances that put athletes at risk.
If you don't have a trainer or strength coach, you need to ensure that you are up to date on how to train your athletes properly, so they don't spend their season watching from the sidelines. A degree in Exercise Science or Athletic Training would be nice, but not necessary for a coach's purpose. A good strength and conditioning program is one that is created by a qualified professional, not an assistant coach who works out. You need to take into account a myriad of variables such as season (pre/off/in/post), goals, correctives, nutrition and a host of others.
One overlooked aspect to ask an expert about is connective tissue strength. When an athlete tears a biceps or sprains an ankle, the injury is not in a muscle belly—it's in the connective tissue. Although lifting heavier weights and getting bigger muscles look good on paper and in the mirror, they don't necessarily translate to a lower risk for injury. Check out how to make your knees bomb-proof to avoid an ACL tear.
5. Know the Energy Systems
Anyone can put someone through a difficult workout and make him feel fatigued or beat up. It doesn't mean it will improve their conditioning. Too often when I ask coaches why they are putting their team through a specific aerobic workout, one that seems inefficient or even harmful, they answer by saying, "to get them in shape." Knowing what that means is much more complex than you may think.
Understanding what energy system is primarily used by your athletes, and to what extent mobility, strength, power and endurance are important can easily guide your training. If you're a volleyball coach, you wouldn't ask your athletes to spring back and forth for conditioning. If you train football players, you wouldn't ask them to go on daily 30-minute runs. Find a qualified strength and conditioning coach or athletic trainer and ask him or her how to train the energy system specific to your athletes' sport.
6. Insist on Proper Recovery
You may have seen or heard of the famous "hell week" that Navy SEALs go through for their training. It's a brutal week of physical exertion, sleep deprivation and pushing men to their breaking point. Unfortunately, many coaches bring this mentality to their teams. The disconnect is that Navy SEALs go through hell week to learn not to break while in combat, fighting for their lives and the lives of their comrades. If they were actually training to improve cardiovascular endurance, speed or strength, it wouldn't look anything like hell week, because there is exactly zero recovery period.
Athletes are not even close to being in the same category. Occasionally and briefly putting your athletes through intense exercise may improve their mental fortitude, but it probably won't make them any tougher or better conditioned.
Recognize the modes of conditioning and exercise you use during practices, and how long some of your better players may have played in the previous competition. Ensuring the ability t0 consistently perform at a high level means insisting on proper recovery.
If you really want to give your athletes a difficult exercise while improving their conditioning at the same time, try cardiac power intervals. Sprint or perform max-effort sport-specific exercises for 90 seconds, then take a two-minute rest. Depending on your players' current conditioning level, you can do anywhere from 4 to 10 repetitions, 1 or 2 times per week—assuming the rest of their training is in line and not overly taxing. An overwhelming number of injuries happen when athletes are fatigued, so the importance of preventing fatigue and improving conditioning by ensuring recovery cannot be understated.
The point to remember here: Find a professional expert to help you prevent injuries. Skill coaches are great at skill coaching, and strength coaches and athletic trainers are great at improving athletes' strength and power. When all three work together, it's a wonderful thing for all involved. It makes practices run smoother, helps all practitioners work better together, and best of all, it keeps the athletes on the field.
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