by Mike Mejia CSCS
If you had to list some of the biggest factors responsible for the inordinate amount of injuries currently being seen in youth sports, what would you say? Failure of young athletes to warm-up properly before physical activity? Absolutely! This is something I've written about extensively in the past. Overusing the same muscles and movement patterns by constantly practicing and competing in a particular sport? Without question. As statistics confirm, up to one half of all sports injuries seen in middle and high school aged athletes are due to overuse.
You could also list things like poor hydration and nutritional habits, "playing up" against what are often bigger, stronger competitors, as well as rushing into advanced forms of training (such as plyometrics and weight training) before they're physically ready. Yet despite the role that each of these factors play in the current injury epidemic, there's something far more basic that can often pose just as big a problem. The good news is, it's also something that can be easily fixed!
I'm referring to the failure of many kids to get down into what's known as the "ready", or "athletic" position. Take a look around the next time you're at a youth sports event of virtually any kind and see how many kids get down into a proper ready position before the start of play. What you'll typically notice, especially in that middle school age group where kids are going through their growth spurts, are athletes standing with their feet too close together (and often flat footed), a slight bend in their knees (if any at all), virtually no flexion in their hips (think butt kind of tucked under the torso) and rounded upper back.
Not only does this place them in an incredibly inefficient position from a movement standpoint, but as such, greatly increases their chances of becoming injured. Think about it, how are they supposed to impart any appreciable amount of force into the ground to initiate movement with such a narrow base of support, while simultaneously carrying themselves in an almost completely upright position? As any good coach will tell you, the key to efficient athletic movement is the ability to get down low "into your hips", so that the powerful glutes and hamstrings can do their job in terms of supplying both propulsion force into the ground as well as helping to create more stability throughout the entire kinetic chain.
By contrast, when you maintain a more upright position you tend to place much more demand on the quadriceps and subsequently, the knees. In fact, this failure to properly engage the glutes and hamstrings is often cited to as a major factor in the development of ACL injuries. The knee however, isn't the only area left susceptible by adopting this decidedly un-athletic posture. The combination of not flexing at the hips and rounding the upper segment of the spine can put the lower back at serious risk of injury. Keeping the hips tucked under the body, with the pelvis in what's known as a posterior tilt, can subject the vertebral discs to unnecessary strain and risk of herniation; especially if the athlete is attempting any rapid explosive, or loaded movements of any type while in said posture.
Speaking more from a performance standpoint, it’s called the ready position for a reason! When an athlete has the majority of his or her weight on the balls of their feet, with a nice wide base of support (feet shoulder width apart or slightly wider), their knees and hips flexed, chest up and arms held out, away from their body, they're ready for just about anything they'll encounter on the playing field, or court. They can jump up and get their arms extended overhead to block a shot, quickly dip their hips even lower to field a ground ball, shuffle laterally to defend against an opponent, or burst into a full speed sprint. That's because the ready position essentially causes them to keep their muscles and connective tissues in an activated state. This makes it much easier for them to "uncoil" and initiate the kind of quick, explosive movements that are key to most sports.
The only problem with the ready position is that it can be tough for young athletes to maintain. It requires a combination of strength, flexibility, endurance, and proper body awareness. Kids not only have to be able to get into the position- which is where the strength and flexibility come in- but once there, they need to be able to recognize and then maintain it so that it becomes a habit. So, besides just teaching the position itself, work with your athletes on improving their flexibility- especially around the hips, knee and ankles. And don't forget to include good strengthening exercises like body weight squats and planks as well. It may take a little time to get them exactly where you want them to be, but I can promise you the results will be well worth the effort.
In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at how to improve reaction time. Until then, practice getting into position and holding the proper athletic position. This way, once you actually start doing the drills, you'll be able to improve more rapidly.