This year has thrown all of us off of our typical routines. Athletes that were once on a perfectly periodized, year-round program found their in-season programs rapidly changed to off-season, at-home programs this year. Our bodies are more than capable of adapting to these changes, but not without educated coaches and trainers.
With the new reopening progression, athletic trainers are cringing at the thought of increased injuries from unprepared athletes. As a healthcare professional that works with copious injured athletes, athletic trainers see injuries every year that may be preventable. As a result, athletic trainers have what I like to call “injury radar.” We spot the rock sticking up in the middle of the soccer field that someone could trip over, we see dehydration on hot days, and we see the detrained athlete returning too quickly to pre-quarantine volumes.
With everyone thrown out of their routines this year, athletic trainers are spotting a big red potential-injury flag. Coaches and trainers will play even more of a crucial role this year in injury prevention than years past. Here are a handful of tips on how to help prevent injuries for athletes returning to a sport after quarantine:
1) Take Your Time
After months of not being able to participate in sports, athletes will be very tempted to jump right back into their pre-quarantine routine. It is your job to remind them to take their time and explain how and why to come back at a proper pace. Your athlete is not the same athlete that walked off the court back in February. Their bodies and minds have been changed. Bodies and minds are both adaptable, but not overnight. It takes time and active energy to return to a sport. Any athlete, coach, or trainer that has been through injury rehabilitation personally knows that.
2) Watch Your Volume
Your athletes may have been used to two-a-days for five to seven days a week. This volume is not going to work for that athlete on or off the field now. You may think you’re doing your athlete a favor by getting them in the gym five days a week before they go back to their sport, but you are not. Volume additionally needs to be a slow progression. Keep in mind that return-to-sport volume has much fluidity and often greatly depends on feedback from your client. When you see your athletes, ask them how they felt after their last workout. Were they unbearably sore? Does your athlete feel they are getting enough recovery between workouts? We know from research and experience that when recovery time is not substantial, injury may occur. You have the ability to prevent these injuries.
3) Reassess and Rebuild Foundational Strength
Whenever there is a drastic change in an athlete’s training routine, you need to reassess their body’s ability upon return. In other words, initially assume that your athlete has lost some foundational strength. You will never know for certain until you assess. Once you establish your client’s new starting point, form new goals, and progress slowly toward those goals. The good news is that research demonstrates that people previously trained return to their baseline faster than the first time around. Your athletes will be able to rebuild their pre-quarantine foundational strength, but make sure you listen to them, and adjust accordingly.
4) Sport Specific Training
Even if you work with an athlete that was able to maintain pre-quarantine volumes of training, they more than likely were not able to maintain sport specific training. Any well periodized pre-season training program will incorporate sport-specific training. Using pre-season, sport-specific training is very appropriate for a client that is returning to a sport after quarantine. These skills may come back quickly, but they still need to be redeveloped and prioritized. For example, a soccer athlete may need to practice rapid change of direction, footwork drills, and single-leg balance. These are all things that can be addressed and help prevent injuries when returning to a sport.
5) Prevent Past Patterns
Know your athlete’s injury history. There are an incredible number of injuries that once they occur, are more likely to reoccur. Some of these are shoulder dislocations, ACL tears, and ankle sprains. With your athlete returning potentially in a deconditioned state, combine training and injury prevention. If your athlete had a previous ACL tear, incorporate hamstring strength and single-leg stability jumping exercises. If your athlete has a history of ankle sprains or instability, strengthen their peroneals and posterior tibialis while doing balance drills on unstable surfaces. These are just a few examples of ways that you can help prevent injuries for you athlete.
Keep in mind that all of these are simply recommendations from an athletic trainer. Each individual is different. Not only do we train and adapt differently, but we also all had different quarantine training experiences. Your athlete may need more help than just these recommendations, or your athlete may progress faster than expected. The best thing you can do is keep an eye on them, listen to their feedback, and of course use your resources and refer to other sports and medical professionals if necessary.
Good luck, and I hope your clients have an injury-free season this year!