I Failed Your Athlete

This time of year is the time of year that is traditionally spent in reflection for people and businesses. What went right and what went wrong. The reason for reflection is so that we can learn and remember these things so as to grow as an individual or business.

For athletes this is typically done at the end of their sports season, however with the advent and popularization of year round sports, there is no real off-season and therefore no real time to reflect. This is a shame as I feel it is a valuable part of becoming a better athlete.

At Red Zone Training we have had a great year. We have the highest number of athletes training, since we moved to the athletic development model a few years back.

A greater number of our athletes are making their “A” teams and/or are playing for, what they consider to be, the better club team for their sport.

More and more of our athletes are on teams that win their division, section, or even national competitions. Two of our athletes won the Babe Ruth World Series, soccer and basketball athletes winning their division, 2 hockey athletes won their region again, soccer athletes winning State Cup, Freshman athletes making the JV or Varsity teams, a sophmore Lacrosse athlete already being contacted by colleges, swimmers hit PR’s, and softball athletes hit more and more homers; however great that it is for them, I judge our success on the number of injuries and the overall health of our athletes.

This is the part where I feel we have failed our athletes.

Although injuries happen in all sports, to just arbitrarily dismiss them as un-preventable I feel is a waste of an opportunity to assess what we could have done better. I like to take the opposite to the traditional approach, I approach every injury personally as if we caused it or didn’t prevent it.

Although we can’t control everything an athlete does, I like this form of extreme ownership which I got from the book Extreme Ownership. If I look at all injuries as my fault I am constantly looking for ways to prevent them, instead of just blaming the coaches, athletes, or random chance or fate.

Looking back this year at the injuries our athletes have had, that have caused them to miss some playing time (I’m not going to address minor injuries or superficial injuries like cuts and bruises unless there is a pattern of them within an athlete), we have had a couple of ankle sprains, a spondylolysis, a partial ACL tear, knee/patellar pain/tendinitis, shoulder tendinitis/tendinosis, lower back pain, and an apophysitis of the iliac crest.

Ankle Injuries:

I’ll address the ankle sprains first. Most of the ankle sprains have occurred to our elementary and middle school athletes, and ironically during P.E. or recess. Since these injuries have occurred in the younger age range I feel we could have helped to prevent these injuries with more agility, footwork, core strength/stability and hip strength stability work with these athletes.

About mid-year we added more speed, agility and quickness work into our programming and have seen less of these injuries since then, so I think we are on the right track. Luckily these have been relatively minor ankle sprains, with only one of our older athletes being affected for more than a week.

ACL Injury:

Our first athlete in 10 years to have an ACL injury and it happened while training with us, and doing a hill sprint of all things – of course it would!! UGGGH. Luckily for the athlete it was a partial tear and he only missed about a month, and actually was back training with us within a couple of weeks.

So how did we fail this athlete? The athlete was doing hill sprints with a team mate and was trying to beat the teammate so he over reached during his last step to get across the “finish line” first. When he over extended, his foot slid forward and he hyper-extended the knee and at least had the wits, strength or luck to flip forward over himself so as to no have the knee go into dislocation.

Knowing how this happened we can see how we failed this athlete. We should have done a better job of communicating to the the athlete, that although we are running them together to get them to push each other, it should not come at the expense of breaking form to win.

Athletes need to learn to go all out, but in a controlled manner. This is where we failed to impress upon him that the process, focus and control, is more important than the outcome, beating his friend.

Knee Issues:

All of the knee issues we have encountered have been due either to growth spurts, over use, movement compensations, or a combination of the previous.

Each case is different and most athlete have missed a weekend competition once to allow recovery, and all have lost practice time. Overall though the athletes and their parents have managed these injuries pretty well

When athletes grow, their bone grows faster than their muscle, which stretches the muscles. Reason #1 why we don’t stretch almost all of our athletes. Compound this with too much running or jumping, and the tendons and ligaments get inflamed. Throw in not enough recovery between practices and/or games and this inflammation start to break down the tendon or pull at the bone where it is attached.

How did we fail these athletes? First we need to communicate better with our athletes and proactively ask them if they have experienced any aches or pains. This step will help ensure that we do not do anything to exacerbate the problem. We also need to emphasis to the athlete and their parents that if not addressed this pain could get worse and that taking a day off or ramping down the volume in practice would benefit the athlete immensely.

With regards to movement compensations, we need to constantly be on the lookout for these as they are a tell tale sign that something is not right either because pain is causing them to move differently or their movement patterns/motor programming is not correct.

Shoulder Issues:

Ah my swimmers and pitchers. All of their shoulder issues stem from over use and under recovery – plain and simple. This may lead to shoulder mobility restrictions or movement restrictions or compensations, but the main underlying issue is over use and/or under recovery.

How we fail these athletes. We need to impress upon them that pain in the shoulder should not be taken lightly and empower them to speak up to us and their coaches if they are in pain. We also need to make sure that their shoulder mobility and thoracic mobility are in line with their sports. If they have limited mobility, they will not only work harder but put stress on the joints where it shouldn’t be.

We have made great headway in this area and most of our swimmers feel confident enough to talk to their coaches and their coaches have seemed to respond well to their concerns and have adapted their training somewhat. Thankfully I don’t think any of our pitches have lost any game time, maybe a few practices here and there for extra recovery, but all in all very little time missed due to injury.

Low Back Injury:

Our swimmer with lower back pain. I believe the cause here is a combination of poor core control (they have the strength but are not using it correctly) which causes flexion and extension in their lumbar spine. They have also had shoulder issues so movement compensation for restricted or painful shoulder movement is probably contributing. Throw in too much volume and not enough recovery and there you go.

How have we failed this athlete? This is a tough one because I don’t feel we have failed this athlete, as by all means they should have taken a month or two off, but that wasn’t really an option for them at this point. The fact that they are doing well and a few colleges have looked at their times is very positive.

This athlete has lost more practice time than meets, I’m not even sure they missed a swim meet, however missed practice time adds up and is not something we want for our athletes either.

Where I feel we could have done a better job was to regress some of her work down even more than we did, but this swimmer has the talent to be really good and there is a lot of pressure on them to put it all together, so we tried to balance recovery work with performance which to be honest is really hard to do and I’m not even sure how well we are doing it as its not something that is usually done at the same time.

Our most recent injury, apophysitis of the iliac crest, is very interesting since I’ve never heard of that before which in itself is concerning as it is another growth/over-use injury that has popped up. An apophysis the part of the growth plate where a muscle attaches via a tendon.

I really can’t say yet how we failed this athlete as I’m trying to figure out how it was caused in the first place. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around what the doctor thinks caused it to what I think caused it.

This injury popped up at the end of this athletes season, and so I don’t think any games were lost here. Whatever the reason ends up being I will figure out how we failed this athlete and move forward appropriately.

Stress Fracture:

The last of our injuries is also the one that we’ve have had to deal with the longest, not only because it takes a while to heal, but that it has happened twice to the same athlete.

A spondylolysis is a stress fracture in the a thin part of the vertebrae known as the pars interarticularis and is a common injury in young athletes that endure repetitive stress, most notably gymnastics. You don’t even have to present with pain to have a spondylolysis and a good percentage of gymnasts who do not present with pain will actually show via and MRI, a spondylolysis.

Where did we fail this athlete? I’ve worked with this athlete on and off for a long time, like almost as long as Red Zone Training has been in existence. This athlete is also a very likeable and respectable person and that is where the problems begin.

Because of this athletes personality and our history I feel I let them talk me out of things too easily. In other words, if they said they were tired or sore, I didn’t question them like I would other athletes, I just regressed their workout.

I don’t feel like the athlete was doing this on purpose, not at all, I just heard what they said and ran with it without questioning further to understand what was actually going on. So because of this, after the injury happened the first time, I really handled them with “kid gloves”, if it “hurt” we stopped.

Sore and hurt are two different things and I did not investigate more to find out which was going on. Due to this, the athlete did not put in the work that they needed to do before returning to their sport and I feel was partially responsible for it returning. I can’t be afraid to hurt an athletes feelings by not telling them to quit making excuses to not do something, even if they are one of your favorite people.

Now I’m not saying I should have beat this athlete down, but I should have pushed them a little harder to see where they really were at physically so as to help them better handle the stresses of their sport.

Bonus Injury:

This one was my most interesting injury to deal with, even more so because they came to us partially because of this injury. What makes it even more interesting is that it is not classified as an injury in the first place.

A swimmer came to us to help their strength, but also their conditioning. After a few weeks in, and several conversations with this swimmer it became apparent that all was not right.

This swimmer after only a few laps in, would have a huge jump in their heart rate and would have their body go numb during their sets. In between sets, they could not catch their breath or recover in time before the next set started.

Being curious I had her put on a heart rate monitor and was going to do a modified max heart rate test on the bike. Basically this test would be a ramp up of intensity during a 12 minute period. After 5 minutes I killed the test as her HR was already up over 200 bpm and she was starting to turn white.

“You NEED to go to the doctor!” I told her. Long story short, after several test of the heart and lungs she came back as no physical issues, which told me maybe it was her swim training program.

I told the athlete that they needed to rebuild their aerobic system since anything they did pushed her anaerobic real quick. This entailed that they swim at slower speeds and take longer recovery breaks. As they progressed they could begin to swim faster, as long as they got full recovery between sets.

To their credit they talked to their coach and told them what they were going to do. At this point, I think the coaches were so freaked out, and rightfully so, that they would have let them do whatever they wanted.

Just over a year later this swimmer is completely back to where they need to be and are starting to pop times again. While this has somewhat of a happy ending, this athlete lost almost 2 years, since during the first year they were improperly training and not making any progress and then the next year building back up.

Even though this injury was not our doing as they came to us with it, it still serves a valuable lesson. There is no way an athlete under your supervision should work to the point where not only is the athlete not progressing, but regressing – severely.  We have to be more responsible for what we are prescribing them, and to take notice when athletes are not progressing, or even worse regressing.

I’ve had talks with several athletes recently and we all seem to be converging on a similar thought: There are a lot of good technical coaches, but very few coaches are good at overall programming and implementation. This is sad, because it is the overall programming that is going to have a bigger impact on whether or not the overall goals of improvement happen.

So another year has gone by and many lessons learned. Although I am happy that with all the athletes we have worked with we have lost very few games and competitions to injury, I still want that number to be zero next year.

Untile then we will continue to educate ourselves and our athlete and learn from any mistakes, and mistakes will be made unfortunately. 🙂

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