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How Science Can Help Prevent Injuries in Young Athletes

Jason Belser’s son, Sajon, is like any other young athlete wanting to give it his all in sports, but at an increasing risk of injury.

Last year, Sajon was playing on a travel baseball team and was preparing for back-to-back tournaments that spanned 16 straights days on the diamond. Prior to the extended stretch, Sajon was taking part in a long practice when his back locked up. The youngster endured muscle spasms and plenty of pain.

“It was strictly an overuse injury,” Jason Belser said. “We had to do a lot of physical therapy.”

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If Sajon could have been able to pinpoint his areas of weakness ahead of time, the injury could have possibly been prevented.

“Since he’s addressed those now, he’s started a high school season injury free and, knock on wood, shouldn’t have any injuries because he prepared his body for the season,” Belser said. “It just wasn’t going to the batting cages and hitting. It just wasn’t catching fly balls. It was the little things, the things that take you off the field as far as your deficiencies and weak areas that he finally was able to recognize through the assessment and start working on.

“Youth sports has changed. They’re being asked to do so much more, and that affects the high school because they’re still playing travel ball to a certain extent. Health and safety’s a big key for having a long, prosperous season.”

Jason Belser has plenty of injury stories of his own. During his 11-year NFL career, Belser sustained four concussions before hanging up his cleats for good after the 2002 season.

Belser is now trying to help young athletes prevent long-term injuries. Belser is the founder and partner of Athlete Asset Management (AAM). After his NFL career as a defensive back, Belser went to work for the NFLPA and was the senior director of player affairs and development. Through the players’ association, he got involved in health and safety issues and started reaching out to youth athletes via a mentor program. That led to Belser’s formation of AAM, which promotes a scientific-based approach to addressing injury prevention.

The Professionalization of Youth Sports

“We’ve really been studying overuse injuries and kind of what we’ve coined as the professionalization of youth sports,” Belser said. “The athletes are being asked to do so much more than they’ve ever done before, and we decided to put our efforts together and offer alternatives and solutions and resources to those athletes and their families.”

Through the NFLPA Mentor Program, Belser interacted with Dr. Doug Gardner. A sports psychologist, Gardner spent six years (1998-2003) as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox; he has also consulted with the Green Bay Packers.

“With what I’ve seen over the last 10 years, maybe even the last 15, is how professionalized youth sports have become, we all know the ramifications of year-round sports,” said Gardner, who is AAM’s director of high performance mental training and founder of ThinkSport Consulting Services. “Through that, people are getting more aware of repeated use injuries and the effects that it’s having on kids. We’re seeing kids at 9, 10 having ACL tears and growth plate breaks and stuff like that from playing a 40-week season.”

Injuries at the youth level are common. The largest concern is the female population, Gardner noted. Because of the way females grow, the hip ratio to the knee ratio can lead to possible ACL tears.

“We see a lot of injuries in athletes where their bodies aren’t fully developed yet,” said Gardner, whose 12-year-old daughter suffered a repetitive-use injury in her ankle during soccer last year that required microfracture surgery. “And while we have those concerns across both genders, one of the things we see are much higher rates of injuries in female sports and that has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of these young ladies their bodies aren’t ready to carry the load that they do.”

Gardner said there is research out there that with good training and proper technique an athlete can reduce the risk of injuries such as ACL tears and other knee issues. These injuries can lead athletes down the road to potential long-term health issues if they’re not addressed, Gardner added.  

It shouldn’t be just athletes who are concerned about their well-being and trying to stay injury free, but parents and coaches as well.

“We know that coaches spend a lot of time coaching and having practice and we really believe that there has to be an awareness factor of balancing not only sport-specific training but training in general so the body can handle the load that you’re putting on it,” Gardner said.

Gardner, who has also been a coach for 29 years for baseball and softball, is currently the head coach of the Acalanes High School softball team in Lafayette, California. With his scientific background and knowing young athletes are vulnerable to injury, he has a different mindset when working with his players. Gardner stresses attention to detail.

“The key to my work as a sports psychologist is really grounded in getting athletes to learn how to prepare better,” Gardner said. “The main focus in all of the work that I do whether as a coach or as a sports psychologist is about the psychology of preparation. You’d be surprised how few athletes really understand how to prepare themselves, not just in their sport and develop their talents, but also out of sport-specific training.”

From GameChanger and Greg Bates.

Basketball, Baseball, Softball, Basketball Player Development, Baseball Player Development, Softball Player Development