Nothing ruins a season for a student athlete more than an unexpected injury. It’s important to know how to best prepare your child for their upcoming sports season to ensure they can perform to the best of their ability and stay injury-free.
Jared Smith, Tasha Spencer, Rebecca Walker, Karassa Prochaska and Anne Barrow are physical therapist assistants (PTA) at Prowers Medical Center, and all five experts work with student athletes as well as other rehabilitation patients throughout the year. As the school year revs up and fall sports get into full swing, they begin to work with student athletes on a more regular basis, helping prevent injuries and nursing any existing or new injuries these student athletes might have.
Smith, who has been a PTA for 10 years, said common injuries he sees are related to severe overuse of a specific joint or muscle, which most often lead to knee, ankle or shoulder injuries, depending on the sport. Examples include ACL tears, meniscus injuries and other biomechanics and stabilization-related issues.
The biggest pieces of advice from the PTAs include proper preparation and consistent activity before your student athlete’s season even begins. Flexibility, balance and strength (specifically, core strength) are extremely important – lack of these elements are common injury contributors.
“Kids are playing these sports, but they’re not physically prepared,” Spencer explained. “If they can get out and stay active during the summer, even if they’re participating in an activity that isn’t their sport, that’s the best thing they can do for their bodies.”
Simply put: if you don’t do anything over the summer in the off season, you can’t expect to be in tip-top shape for competition in the on season. And if you try, you might hurt yourself. Smith said a general time frame to begin preparing for a sport is about six weeks, but of course, that varies by sport. Endurance sports will likely need longer prep time than that.
“In the off season, it is important to go back to the basics and focus more on technique and form,” Walker said. “Poor body kinematics while participating in sport events can lead to injury.”
Prochaska added: “You can’t perform at your top level if you have not been practicing some of your weaknesses during the off season and treating your body right. By treating your body right, I mean getting enough sleep each night, eating a balanced diet, training several days a week but also knowing when you need to let your body rest.”
If your student athlete’s season has already started, the Prowers PTA Team recommends they thoroughly stretch, warm up and cool down when playing their respective sport — whether they’re playing in a game or simply practicing.
Dynamic stretching (i.e. torso twists, leg swings), which include movement, should be done 15 to 20 minutes before activity. Warms-ups for athletes should start at about 30% intensity, then be increased to 50% intensity after a few minutes, then to 75%. At this point, you should be ready for a full workout or game. Cool downs should include static stretching (i.e. hamstring and shoulder stretches), which means no movement and an extra focus on improvements in flexibility.
“My biggest tip for student athletes is always listen to what your body is trying to tell you,” Prochaska said. “If you are having an unusual pain that comes on, get it checked out. Playing through the pain isn’t going to benefit you in the long run.”
Spencer, a former student athlete herself who has experienced injury, knows the mental and emotional toll an injury can have on a student athlete, which helps her relate to her patients.
“When it comes to an injury that has already occurred, there’s no pill, tape or machine that’s going to take care of the problem,” she said. “It’s going to take hard work to make it better, and a lot of effort and dedication. I do a lot of education, motivation and emotional support for my student athlete patients.”
Physical therapist assistants help patients recover by leading them through exercises that incorporate stretching, strengthening and balance. PTAs can do most things a physical therapist can do, excluding initial evaluations, discharges, diagnoses and a few other tasks, according to Smith. But the PTA Team at Prowers is always ready to help local kids in the communities with whatever they might need.
“The most rewarding part of working with kids is that they are very motivated and, ultimately, have a goal that they want to meet,” Walker said. “I believe that kids bring a fun energy to the clinic.”
The Prowers Medical Center Rehabilitation Team supports athletes on and off the field. They also help the geriatric population, surgical patients, patients with chronic pain and more. For more information about physical therapy and rehabilitation services at Prowers Medical Center, call (719) 336-6728 or visit prowersmedical.com.