Preventing Serious Injury & Death in Sports Training - Expert Article

Through media reports as well as our own forensic investigations, the sports and recreation experts at Robson Forensic have seen an alarming increase of incidents wherein high school aged athletes are suffering serious injuries during both individual training and team practice sessions. At the national level, there are a number of factors that are contributing to this increase in injury, including a sports culture that provides mounting pressure for athletic achievement and unprecedented access to information on new and sometimes dangerous training methods. When pursued without proper training or certification, and especially absent of an evaluation of individual athletic abilities, any training program can become dangerous. In this article, sports, fitness, and recreation expert, Dr. Laura Miele-Pascoe highlights the nature of the problem and discusses best practices for safely implementing sports training programs for high school aged athletes.

Preventing Serious Injury & Death in Sport Training

Athletes are not all created the same, physiologically or physically, and each sport demands a different set of skills and strengths. Coaches and trainers are tasked with weighing these factors as they strive for each athlete to reach their optimal level of performance. Coaches have taken an interest in extreme styles of training that push athletes to their physical and mental limits, which can be extremely dangerous and result in serious injury or death. This could take the form of Military/Navy Seal training in an effort to build mental toughness, training in extreme heat, or using inappropriate equipment.

There are steps which should be followed for athletes to be trained safely and effectively, and to proactively prevent serious sports related injuries.

Athlete Assessment: Evaluation and assessments should be executed which test athletes in their functional movements, strength, and ability. Trainers and coaches should administer screenings to assess where individual athletes are in the progression of skills and strength training relevant to the sport, and keep a record of each athlete’s assessment results and training progress.

Factors to Assess: The age of the athlete, the experience the athlete already has in the sport, the results of a physical assessment, a regular doctor’s exam, and any pre-existing medical conditions the athlete may have should all be addressed during the assessment process. Open lines of communication between athletes, coaches, and parents/guardians are essential to ensure the coach and other relevant trainers and staff are aware if an athlete has any pre-existing conditions. For example: asthma, heart conditions, allergies, prior injuries, etc.

Creating a Training Plan: Not all athletes have the same capabilities, and the training should be developed that considers the abilities of each individual athlete within the context of their sport. It is imperative that younger athletes are monitored as they typically do not possess the awareness to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of injury. Coaches and trainers must consider a multitude of factors when developing training programs, including the physical abilities of their individual athletes, existing skills and experience in the motions specific to their sport, and the appropriateness of specific training activities given the age and maturity of their athletes.

Re-Assessment: By continually monitoring the progress of athletes, coaches can make informed choices on gradually increasing training loads, or while aiding an athlete in recovering from an injury. If a training tactic is too extreme, the coach should adjust their strategy to suit the training level of the athletes.

Resources for Coaches and Trainers: There is an extensive body of research committed to athletic training and performance. These resources are available for trainers and coaches to guide them through designing training programs. Coaches and trainers should follow best practices that have been endorsed by leading organizations such as:

  • The American College of Sports Medicine
  • National Council for Strength and Fitness
  • National Federation of State High School Associations
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association

Evaluating the Appropriateness of Specific Activities

Beyond the factors already discussed in evaluating the abilities of the individual athlete and monitoring their progress, it is important for coaches and trainers to evaluate the appropriateness of specific training techniques. While most training methods can be justified for specific subsets of elite athletes (at some point a performance juggler introduces functional chainsaws), advanced training techniques need to be introduced with an appropriate level of care.

  • Form: Improper form can result in exercise becoming unreasonably dangerous. As an example, even well-known weightlifting movements such as the deadlift and squat can result in serious injuries if athletes are not taught proper spotting techniques and monitored throughout their progression. Learning the potential consequences of improper form may also inspire young athletes to take caution, especially when trying a new exercise or using a new piece of equipment.
  • Environmental Factors: Extreme tactics such as training in the heat can cause athletes to dangerously overexert themselves and risks serious injury. Conditions like heat stroke or muscle injuries can have prolonged impacts on the athlete’s health.
  • Equipment: The boom of “hardcore” fitness programs in recent years have introduced items to the gym environment that one may not expect. Suddenly tires, metal chains, and even wood logs have found their way into fitness programs, without clear standards about their use and safety. Coaches and trainers must weigh the temptation to do what is new and exciting with tried and tested techniques that are both safe and reasonable for use in a particular sport. The injuries that can be sustained not only through overexertion, but the real danger of dropping or mishandling one of these items and suffering broken bones, spinal injuries, or death must be evaluated and the risk properly mitigated.

Fitness & Training Investigations

The sports and recreation experts at Robson Forensic are frequently engaged to investigate catastrophic sports injuries to determine how they occurred and whether or not they could have been prevented. Leagues, coaches, athletes, and trainers have a shared responsibility to minimize participants’ risk of injury during sports and recreational activities. Our experts look at the actions of these parties within the context of each incident and compare those actions against established standards and best demonstrated industry practices. Our experts are qualified to provide these technical opinions because they are actively involved in the coaching, participation, and administration of various competitive sports and recreational activities.

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