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The Billion Dollar Question:Can Anything Be Done To Reduce Injuries?

With major professional sports leagues like MLB, NFL and the NBA, trending younger for decades now; couple that with better nutrition, recovery modalities and player readiness technologies and we should be seeing a decreasing trend in athlete injuries, right? Unfortunately that’s not the case. In fact, we continue to see athletes injuries on the rise in professional sports, especially sports injuries involving ligaments and tendons.

That being said, the problem isn’t an aging athlete issue if the average player ages in pro sports is moving younger not older. Nor can it be athletes not having the resources to recover better from games, practices and training. All professional sports organizations have a medical/sports science staff and the technology to assess training state pre, during and post games, practices and workouts. That leaves the heart of the problem of which has been and continues to be an athlete development issue.

When you have physically underdeveloped adolescent athletes being driven to chase individual performance indicators (e.g.,pitch velo, bat speed, defensive arm strength, etc.) because they’re being evaluated as soon as they enter a sport regardless of age; we should expect that tendon and ligament development and health will be impacted. If given the time to grow and physically mature under a realistic and systematic development system then connective tissue, joints and muscles have time to develop together for a stronger musculoskeletal system. When we try to accelerate this early on by just focusing on strength and power, the performance results may come but the system is not being built to sustain this for a long period of time, as we are seeing with the rise of youth injuries/surgeries along with the increase in the performance matrix's.

For the college and pro athletes, the root issue is similar in that they too are driven to chasing individual performance indicators in order to meet expectations or to gain opportunities. Adding to that though is that many of these adult athletes are already predisposed to injuries from their adolescence. They also have greater power output and force production to go along with longer, more intense seasons. All this equates to an increased susceptibility for injuries.

Now don't get me wrong, I believe that evaluating athletes and tracking improvement is very important part of sport. Where it has gone wrong is that the focus has switched from evaluating results of a player development process, to building a development program around the desired results first. While that may seem like an insignificant difference, it's not! One builds off of individual strengths and weaknesses to develop a plan with an open-ended goal in mind and the other looks at specific shortsighted results first regardless of how they're achieved. I believe this not only plays into athlete injuries but also can lead to an incomplete evaluation of an athlete because it's not based on looking at the whole individual but just comparing parts of the individual to a fixed set of norms.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers to this large multi-factorial problem. What I do know is that for almost my entire life, I’ve either been an athlete, coaching athletes and/or studying the human body in sports; and when I step back and take a long objective look at the total athlete spectrum, I see subtle but significant changes in how athletes are trained, treated and evaluated.

When it comes to how athletes training, once again, many young athletes are trained to met and exceed the benchmark performance indicators, therefore the focus isn't in developing a foundation strength base first. Now it's how can we train to generate as much power as we can regardless of age, training state, training history, season and a slew of other factors that should be considered when training athletes.

As for changes in how athletes are treated and evaluated, there has been great improvements in technology and the science of diagnosing and treating injured athletes. The problem has been that there's not enough of these resources outside of the professional and D1 collegiate programs to evaluate and treat these young athletes in order to prevent serious injuries from occurring. Also, when an athlete is in a system where their physiological state is constantly being evaluated, it can have a negative impact on their ability to intrinsically evaluate their own physiological feedback system. This can be a problem when an athlete doesn't know how or when they can push it or have to back off based on the signals their body is producing because they're relying so heavily on the extrinsic feedback of GPS, heart rate monitors, HRV and other feedback devices.

With all that being said, rather than just pointing out all the issues without any solutions to this epidemic problem, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how we can start to move the needle on on reducing injuries across the board.

1) Provide kids in public schools consistent exposure and opportunities to exercise. Through a developmental plan to increase physical proficiency, you could physically prepare athletes to handle the increased demands of specialized sports.

2) Develop a coaching standard and training for all youth and high school sports in order to raise the expectations and the quality of coaching that athletes are exposed to. In doing so, there may be less injury/treatment miss information or decisions made more about athlete long term development and health and less about just the results.

3) Require all high schools and colleges to provide onsite access to qualified medical professionals (Athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning specialists). This would allow for proper evaluation, treatment and training of all athletes regardless of the sport. By doing so, you could prevent further injuries and the severity of these injuries.

4) For older athletes; stop jumping in and out of high intensity training programs, chasing power numbers and get back to sound training principles during the off-season. The body can only handle so much high intensity stress before it starts to breakdown, especially if it's not built up systematically over a period of time to handle the higher stress and forces.

5) Implement a performance enhancement substances education/awareness plan for all middle school and high school athletes. Steroids, SARMS and other PES can have a profound impact on injuries and overall athlete health. This is a much bigger problem than most people realize!

These are just a few ideas that could make an immediate impact but it's going to take many other diverse thoughts/ideas in order to move forward and make a real difference!

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