How Physical Therapy Can Improve Sports Performance

Whether you’re in little league, a weekend warrior, or a professional athlete, physical therapy can help you improve your game and reduce your risk of injuries. I’m Lauren Masi, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist. I’m also the owner and Clinical Services Director of Bay Area Physical Therapy and Lafayette Physical Therapy. Today we’re going to talk about how physical therapy can improve sports performance for athletes.

What Do We Mean by “Athletes”?

Athletes can be of all ages, and we don’t discriminate here. It could be anyone from the weekend warrior to a professional athlete, to even your 7-year-old who needs to make his little baseball team. And we want to make sure that everybody can do what makes them happy, safely, efficiently, and effectively, and to prevent injuries. 

And athletes of all ages can experience sprains, strains and injuries while playing their sports. We want to make sure that we get to the root cause of how and why they got injured.

What Kind of Injuries Can Athletes Experience in Sports?

The obvious injuries in sports can be impact based. You have a football player or a soccer player who is slide tackled. Another body coming at them really fast can result in broken bones, torn ACLs, things like that. 

But sometimes what we see is more overuse injuries; or even the complete opposite, that weekend warrior who has not done any strengthening or conditioning and all of a sudden they’re back out there. And their body isn’t prepared for the demand that’s being put on it.

Some of these injuries can be caused by things like poor movement strategies, or poor posture while they’re doing their sport. This can sometimes come about from poor training or coaching. The coaching rules for kids are changing all the time now on what’s actually allowed to be taught to children. For example, they’re modifying how children are tackling in football.

Why You Should Avoid Youth Specialization

One of the things that we have as a very hot topic in physical therapy and athletic training nowadays is youth specialization. A lot of parents are putting extra pressure on their kids, and kids themselves do the same. They all want to be the next top professional athlete, the next Steph Curry, for example.

And although we want them to strive and work hard and be very fit and maintain that active lifestyle, we also don’t want to recommend youth specialization. And what that means is, we want to make sure that if they’re doing a sport that is very eye-hand dominant like basketball that they are also doing a sport that includes the lower body. We want to make sure that kids are not doing the same repetitive activity over and over again that can cause injury to their tissues.

Another example is in little league. Baseball players are getting early torn ligaments in their elbows and needing Tommy John surgeries at 10 or 12 years old. This isn’t normal and this isn’t something that was happening in the past; but as we’re pushing our youth harder and harder, we want to make sure we’re protecting them as well.

How Long Should a Child Athlete Spend Practicing Each Week?

The general guidelines are based on age. For example, if you have a 5-year-old, they should not be spending more than five hours practicing their sports, and it should be in a diverse variety of sports. If they’re 10 years old, they wouldn’t be spending more than 10 hours a week. We’re just trying to protect their growing bones and tissues to make sure that we prevent injuries in the future. You might not realize that pushing your children at a young age can weaken their tissues and lead to future problems when they are an adult.

How Can Physical Therapy Help Athletes

Physical therapists can rehab specific injuries, and we do handle traumatic and overuse injuries all the time. My background is in athletic training, and I worked with the baseball and football teams at college years ago. In football, I was seeing many more of the traumatic injuries. And in baseball, I was seeing a lot more of the chronic overuse injuries.

Strengthening Programs

Once we know the sports that a person is interested in, we can develop strengthening programs to ensure that they’re strong in the right places. And based on the sport’s demand, we can adjust that for whether it has to be more endurance based or power, quick-burst kind of activities. For example, the sprinter versus the marathon runner. They’re both runners, but they have to be trained very differently because they use different muscles in different ways.

Addressing Movement and Posture

We also want to address the underlying movement strategies that they need for whatever sport they’re playing. That includes their posture, their balance and muscle imbalance issues—meaning, are they weak in some places and strong in others, or tight in some places? All of that needs to be addressed based on the movement patterns that they do. 

We take into consideration things like, are they doing jumping sports? How are they landing when they jump, for example? Or in the example of baseball players, sometimes their coaches are going to have them work on their batting. They’ll sit there and swing forever and ever, and they are going to overuse their upper extremities. And we will help teach them things like how to use their lower extremities to drive power from their hips and their legs.

It’s the same thing in golf. We will see overuse back injuries in golfers. And really, what I find most of the time is they’re not using their hips and their legs to help as much. They’re just whipping around that ball and overusing their back. We do want to break down the specifics of treatment based on the sport the athlete plays.

Working with Coaches

I want to make sure that I state that we are not coaches in any of these sports, so we don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. We are looking at the biomechanics and the anatomy to make our decisions. And we are happy to work in conjunction with the coaches—whether that’s getting on the phone, doing video assessments, or meeting with them—because we want to make sure that no matter what, we are all working towards the common goal.

Call Bay Area Physical Therapy for More Information

If you have any other questions or would like to set up an evaluation, please call our front desk at (925) 284-3840 and we’ll get that set up as soon as possible.

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