Involvement in sport can be a profoundly beneficial experience. Playing sport can instill useful skills like work ethic and problem-solving, provide social connection and community, establish routine and stability, contribute to health and physical fitness, and more. However, along with sport participation comes risks and costs. Especially for those who become seriously involved or who progress into elite realms of sport, injury due to sport involvement like stress fractures, tendonitis, or plantar fasciitis, can become a significant risk or reality.
Sport can cause or exacerbate injuries that can have life-long effects. Especially when not properly cared for, sport injuries can be or become very serious. This is why those who participate in sport should educate themselves on best practice for injury protection and prevention.
Thankfully, though you can never completely mitigate the risk of injury while playing sport, investing time and energy in prevention practice can significantly lessen that risk.
Common Injury Types for Athletes
Though a wide range of sport injuries are possible, a few types of injury are more common and thus important to understand and watch out for if you engage in sport participation. This can be especially vital at higher levels of sport performance and/or as you age.
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is found in the knee. ACL tears, partial tears, or ruptures are common occurrences in moderate and serious levels of participation across many sports. They tend to be most common in sports that include heavy lateral movement, body contact, sprinting, and quick motions. These can include football, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse. ACL injuries can require surgery to repair, take months to rehabilitate, and may permanently affect athletic performance upon return to play.
Stress fractures are cracks in bones that often occur in smaller bones and usually as a result of overuse or increased use/stress over time. These are particularly common for runners in the foot or leg, but can occur for other types of athletes as well. If left untreated or ignored, stress fractures can worsen and lead to long-lasting conditions such as arthritis. The principal treatment for stress fractures is rest and abstaining from activity.
Debilitating Conditions (Tendonitis, Plantar Fasciitis, Overuse, and more)
A number of conditions can develop in athletes that affect anatomical components and can make sport difficult or impossible. Tendonitis, for instance, refers to inflammation in the tendons that connect muscles to bones. This condition can be common in tennis players but can affect a range of athlete types. Plantar fasciitis is a condition that specifically affects tissue along the bottom of the foot and also causes inflammation and pain, often only treatable by reducing sport activity or use. These and other conditions don’t necessarily originate in a specific point in time (like other injuries) but over time.
Muscle or cartilage tears in certain muscles or muscle groups can be very common in certain sports. For example, muscles in the shoulder socket including the labrum and rotator cuff are particularly susceptible to tears in baseball and softball players, and can also frequently affect football players and wrestlers. Muscle tears can cause high levels of pain and performance deterioration, and can often require surgery and/or lengthy rehabilitation.
Concussions are often classified as mild brain injuries by medical professionals. While concussions are often relatively minor, severe concussions or experiencing multiple concussions can be very dangerous and cause lasting or lifetime effects. A number of sports can greatly increase your risk of sustaining concussions. These include contact team sports like football, basketball, rugby, and soccer.
Especially if you are involved in sport at levels of moderate to high competition, or as an adult or senior citizen, it is important to be aware of the types of injuries you risk by participating as well as the natures, warning signs, and symptoms of common sports injuries.
Best Preventative Measures Athletes Can Take
As an athlete, you are your own first line of defense in preventing injury. Don’t rely solely on coaches, trainers, or parents to gauge how your body responds to sport involvement. Employing the following practices can go a long way in protecting you from injury:
Knowing what to watch for can be half the battle in preventing sport injuries. Pay attention to your body, particularly when you feel pain. The dull ache of muscle soreness or fatigue can indicate productive growth and improvement. But sharp or shooting pains, or pain that’s not reciprocated equally (e.g. if one knee hurts and the other doesn’t), can be red flags that should be addressed with a professional.
Stretching and Cool-down
The body needs to be prepared for physical activity beforehand and eased out of it afterwards. The more intense the activity, the more important this practice. Stretching allows your muscles to warm, become more responsive and flexible, and enter a state less likely to be over-stretched or strained during sport activity.
Cool-down routines help your heart rate slow at a healthy rate, relax your muscles after strain, and keep them limber and flexible for their next use.
Especially in sports that utilize certain muscles, movements, or skills more than others, it’s important to incorporate activities and training that balance them with complementary ones to keep your body regulated and evenly developed.
Movement and performance of virtually every type involves your core – large, central muscles that include your abdominals, hip flexors, glutes, and more. When sport activity or training emphasizes muscle growth in other areas and neglects developing these pivotal muscles, this can lead to imbalance or injury risk.
Rest periods are vital for muscle growth and recovery. Especially when loads increase and sport training or involvement becomes more rigorous, it is imperative that you allow adequate recovery time for your muscles to repair. This can look like not doing additional lifting or training sessions outside being in season for a team, waiting at least 24 hours between training sessions, and getting adequate hours of sleep per night.
Your body needs appropriate fuel to perform at its best, and this is particularly important for athletes. Eat high-quality, natural foods; avoid large amounts of sugar; drink the recommended amount of water per day for your size and age; and be mindful of your sleep, stress, and activity levels outside your sport involvement.
How Coaches and Supportive Figures Can Support and Protect Athletes
Lastly, a few measures coaches and other role models can take on athletes’ behalf can significantly reduce risk of injury for athletes and those that participate in sport:
Prioritize Preventative Measures
Educate your athletes on best practice for injury prevention. Demonstrate its importance by prioritizing it in practice or during training, and model it personally in your own sport involvement.
Especially in higher levels of sport, it’s easy to overtrain athletes by requiring too much physical activity in a given week. Overuse or training when fatigued can cause significant injury risks.
Don’t Rush an Athlete’s Return to Sport After an Injury
Returning too soon to sport activity after sustaining a minor injury is one of the biggest predictors for experiencing more significant injury. No matter how much you want your players back on the court or field, it is better for both them and you to make sure they get adequate recovery time before returning to sport.
Provide Resources and Access to Experts Whenever Possible
Whatever your experience level, professionals in exercise science, physical training, or physical therapy can often provide superior help to making sure your athletes achieve their best performance. Do whatever you can to encourage your athletes to utilize support from these professionals.
Whatever your type or level of sport involvement, participating in sport creates risk of injury. However, by taking preventative measures and investing in your body’s health and wellbeing, you can greatly decrease the risk of sustaining frustrating or restricting injuries.