Youth athletics have become very popular in the past ten years. Everywhere you turn there is a new “elite” travel program popping up. This means that more and more kids are competing in higher level and often in year-round sports. Competition drives parents to seek out the best mix of adjuncts to help their child at top-level competition. Additions to an athlete’s primary coach can include a specialty or positional coach, rehabilitation specialists, strength and conditioning specialists, professional stretchers and even nutritional coaches. Each member of this team has valuable and unique input and recommendations for the athlete. I have witnessed firsthand the disappointed look on a parents face when they finish an expensive session of private lessons for a particular specialty only to be told “ your child doesn’t have the mobility they need to work with me effectively”, work on stretching this or that out and come back.
I experienced this firsthand when I took my daughter to an elite softball pitching coach. After the evaluation she informed me that my daughter did not need a change in technique, she needed more mobility to perform even the basics of the pitching motion. Ten years later and I hear the same story at the baseball field with my son’s teammate. Hearing it again made me realize how much mobility and flexibility issues are affecting young athletes. Now I find myself almost looking for examples of it when I am watching a game or out for a run.
The balance of flexibility and stability is vital to the longevity of young athletes. Longevity sounds like a funny term to use with kids and sports, but we all know that athlete that “threw’ their arm out, or “tore” their hamstring and can no longer participate.
Player specialization and single sport participation are becoming the norm despite recommendations against it form the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). Early sport specialization is defined as intensive training or competition in an organized sport by prepubescent children for eight or more months out of the year. The AAOS attributes lack of sport diversification with a significantly higher incidence of repetitive injury. Bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints do not have enough time to heal and can lead to maladaptive mobility and a decline in flexibility. (AAOS, 2019)
Adaptive decline in mobility and flexibility can lead to more serious and longer lasting injury. Repeated forced motion can damage healthy tissue replacing it with less mobile scar tissue perpetuating the injury cycle.
The terms mobility and flexibility are often and incorrectly used interchangeably. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or a group of muscles to lengthen passively through a range of motion. Mobility is the ability of a joint or joints to move actively through a range of motion. The ability of a body part to move passively through the proper range of motion is the baseline requirement for an activity to be performed safely during an activity like a sport.
For example, during the late cocking phases of pitching a baseball the shoulder can reach ranges of motions of 165-175 degrees of external rotation. If you cannot achieve that amount of range passively (somebody stretching you into that range), you are setting yourself up for damage if you try to force that motion during a ballistic movement like a pitch. It is imperative that you have flexibility to perform an activity so you can have the mobility to perform it safely. Strength and stability are not to be ignored, but for the purposes of focusing on the topic of mobility and flexibility, we have purposefully omitted the important aspects of stability and strength on injury prevention.
Although this is just one example of flexibility influencing performance, there are countless examples. Youth sport participation is rife with growing athletes putting their bodies through stressful movements. How many times to we hear a coach yell instruction like “reach back and throw”, or “finish your swing”? We need to consider that the athlete may lack the flexibility and mobility to perform that task and asking them to do so without a proper assessment is asking for an injury.
Get a posture and flexibility assessment at Rezilient and work with a professional stretcher to determine if a flexibility and mobility program is right for your young athlete.
-Dan Fleury, Co-Founder of Rezilient