“No pain, no gain.”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
“If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.”
Do these sayings sound familiar? Today, I’m here to bust the myth. Pain is not the goal and should not be encouraged or mistaken as hard work. Overuse injuries and mental burnout are legitimate risks young athletes face, especially as high expectations and the pressures of success grow in today’s society. As a former high school and Division I collegiate athlete, I have seen the unfortunate side effects of overtraining, as well as experienced what proper training should look like. I am motivated to share my knowledge to help people, particularly those in the youth demographic, reduce their likelihood of developing overuse injuries.
Different types of sports require different movement patterns. For example, volleyball requires a lot of high impact jumping, turning, starting/stopping, multidirectional shuffling, and overhead swinging. Over the course of a long season, these repetitive movements can lead to overuse and underuse of certain muscle groups. This imbalance can make athletes susceptible to injury. Three other main factors that can contribute to overuse injury include lack of stability, poor mechanics, and improper cycles of training and recovery.
Can my body take on the repetitive forces of the game? Think of it this way, how far can you drive a car with loose lug nuts? If your deep stabilizing muscles are weak, your joints (and other deep structures) become unstable and take on the compressive forces of high intensity activity. Just like the wheel, you will start to experience excess wear and tear. This instability can be dangerous, making athletes who are weak and unstable vulnerable to tears and strains. Female athletes, in particular, are prone to different injuries than their male counterparts due to biomechanical and physiological differences. For example, females tend to have a wider pelvis (larger “Q Angle” which can increase stress through the knee), increased laxity, greater flexibility, and there can be a difference seen in the rate of muscle development. Another factor to consider is growth spurts. Growth spurts will lengthen out the limbs quickly, making it even more vital for these muscles to catch up to stabilize their new, long levers. Key point: Building a foundation of stability starts at the core and deep stabilizing muscles of the hips and shoulders.
How am I moving, jumping, and landing on the court? As kids start to play organized sports at younger ages, it is essential for them to learn proper mechanics. For example, one of the biggest problems I see in young volleyball players is what we call “dynamic valgus.” Due to weak hip muscles and lack of coordination, the knees and feet collapse or rotate inward. This places unwanted stress at the knee and is a huge mechanism of MCL, ACL, and meniscus injury. Add high intensity jumping and shuffling to the mix, and we are brewing up a bad situation. Time and effort should be given to practice and perfect the main movement patterns of your sport. With the high volume of jumping, landing, and pivoting movements in volleyball, I recommend training sessions dedicated to that. Developing a fundamentally sound arm swing and scapular control is also an important developmental milestone of a youth volleyball player and should be prioritized early on. The rotator cuff muscles are designed to stabilize the ball and socket joint of the shoulder, and just like the “loose lug nut” analogy, need to be strengthened to protect the shoulder from the forces of repetitive swinging.
Does your coach recommend or provide strength training? Not only will strength training improve performance and make you faster, stronger, and more explosive; it will also help reduce your risk of injury. Resistance training is key to building a stable and strong foundation. A balanced strength training program will address areas of weakness to reduce muscular imbalances that can occur. Stronger muscles are also resilient to stress and can provide more protection to the joint by working as shock absorbers to dissipate high impact forces.
Am I getting proper recovery? Do I give myself a break from playing the same sport? Train smarter, not harder. If you are performing the same exercises and playing the same sport year round, you are at heightened risk of overuse injury. For your body to handle the demands of the sport and a long season, training strategies should change overtime. Periodization is the logical and systematic process of sequencing and integrating training interventions in order to achieve peak performance at appropriate time points. In other words, certain times of the year are dedicated to different goals and include variations of training specificity, intensity, and volume. A mesocycle refers to a particular training block within a season which includes the off-season, pre-season, competitive period, and post-season. Intensity and strength training goals should change based on what type of season you are in. Important note: Weight lifting should not stop because you are in a competitive period. Below shows an example of the training changes you may see throughout different parts of the year.
Lastly, let’s talk about pain vs. discomfort. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right and it should not be ignored. Athletes, it is okay to be sore, but know your limits. Post-exercise muscle soreness peaks 24-72 hours after exercise and usually subsides within a few days. Stretching and general activity should help decrease symptoms of soreness. Injury pain does not ease up as easily and can worsen with activity. Monitor how you feel and communicate with parents and coaches when something isn’t improving or getting worse. Remember: Rest, hydration, and recovery are just as important to prioritize to ensure longevity throughout the season. Playing multiple sports is another great way to change up your movement patterns and train your body in different ways.