Concussion Prevention For Football: Strengthening The Neck

Football Tackle Pic

Is this a concussion happening?

Concussions In Football

One of the hot topics in sports medicine the last few years has been concussions.  It seems that every where you turn, concussions are being discussed.  Many articles and news stories have been run covering all aspects of concussions – testing, treatment, prevention, even the possible limited lifespan of American football as we know it.  One idea that has received some mention is the concept of neck strengthening to help prevent concussions.  Since football season is underway, I thought that I’d address this topic.

Why is neck strength important?

Almost any type of impact in sports can cause a concussion.  These impacts can come from other players, the ground, or even a ball.  We usually think that you have to get struck in the head to get a concussion.  That’s not entirely true.

Youth Football Tackle Pic

Even a blow to the body can cause a concussion if the forces are great enough

Anything that causes a sudden movement of the head can cause the brain to accelerate inside the skull.  Of course, after it has accelerated, it strikes the inside of the skull which causes a concussion. Having strong neck muscles can help to limit the dramatic forces that can take place when struck in the head or elsewhere.  While not all concussions can be prevented, anything that we can do to keep the head more stable should help to decrease the chance of getting one.  Years ago, I was taught that it was important for football players to strengthen the neck to prevent neck injuries.  It’s also an important to part of concussion prevention.  Some college football programs have placed a renewed emphasis on neck strengthening.  Has it helped reduce concussions?  Several of these colleges have reported about a 50% decrease in concussions.  While these weren’t scientific studies, I think that  we should all take note and realize that include neck training in the programs for our teams.

What To Do

So, what should you do to train the neck?  You should focus on exercises that work the neck in six directions:

  • Flexion
  • Extension
  • Lateral Flexion (right & left)
  • Rotation (right & left)

These exercises should be done twice per week for 2-3 sets of 10.  If you have access to one, you can use a 4-way neck machine for everything except the rotation movements.  Other possible methods to complete the exercises include:

  • Manual resistance (individual or partner)
  • Resistance with a towel (individual or partner)
  • Resistance with an exercise band (individual or partner)
  • Neck Bridges

While it is important to train all of these specific neck motions, you must also train the trapezius muscle.  The trapezius helps to extend the neck and can help to add stability if it is strong.  The best exercises to use are shrugs and upright rows.  These exercises should be included twice per week also.  Shrugs can be done for 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps.  I usually keep upright rows to 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.

One more thing that can be done is to add in some perturbation movements.  Many times in football, an athlete doesn’t see a block or hit in time to prepare his body for the impact.  These movements can help  improve neck stability during these unseen impacts.  To do perturbations, have an athlete in a seated position with their eyes closed.  Their neck should be held in a neutral position.  Have their partner suddenly but gently push their head in random directions.  The athlete should respond to the push by attempting to stop the head motion using their neck muscles.  I would suggest doing one set of 20 repetitions.

I have always believed in training the neck to prevent neck injuries.  With the  rash of concussions that seem to be happening in football, it has become even more important to train these muscles.  Make sure to find time in your program to include these exercises.  I know, none of us ever have enough time to fit everything in our strength programs.  Now there’s one more thing to include?  Just remember, while it may be important to do the bench, squat, clean, etc,  there is nothing more important than preventing potential injuries.  Make neck strengthening a priority in your program.

 

Mark

P.S.  While the info in this post was related to football, it applies to many other sports also.  The same program can be used for athletes that play soccer, lacrosse, and many other sports.  It can be especially vital for females to strengthen their necks.  Experts in concussions have begun recommending neck strengthening for females after realizing that they tend to have less neck strength than males.

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Thoughts On The Olympics

Ryan Lochte Training

Just like many of you, I’ve spent part of the last week watching the Olympics.  There has been a big deal made about Ryan Lochte’s training and some of the unusual things that he does to prepare.  These include tire flips, keg tosses, and using ropes.  Some other S & C coaches have given their thoughts on his workouts.  Some of these were positive and some not so much.    Some of us might not feel comfortable putting an athlete through strongman type activities.  Ryan’s S & C coach, Matt Delancey, does.  I’ve heard Matt speak on a few occasions at clinics, including one lecture on the use of strongman exercises with athletes.  I also had an opportunity to watch him at work.  Matt is a former strongman competitor so yes, sometimes strongman exercises make it into the routines he uses with his athletes.  One thing that you may not know is how much Matt emphasizes correct form.  He is much less worried with how much weight someone can lift than he is with developing and maintaining proper form.  His number one rule for strongman exercises is that as soon as the athletes form breaks down, you stop the exercise.  I believe that having a full understanding of an exercise how to perform it correctly is crucial to being a good S & C Coach.  While many of us might not feel comfortable including strongman exercises, often that is due to our background and a lack of knowledge about the exercises.  While some might not agree with using these exercises with a swimmer, his coach is very comfortable with it.  He is also very competent to teach the exercises and keep them safe.  Whether we agree with the program that Ryan does or have some issues with it, we need to keep one thing in mind:  every coach is different.  Every coach has different backgrounds and experiences, different styles, and different levels of comfort with certain exercises or methods.  That’s one of the neat things about strength and conditioning.  While there is a lot of science that we rely on, there is also room for each of us to be unique and create our own program.  Just because a program is different than one we might design, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

Here’s a sample of Ryan’s Training.

Strongman Exercises For Everyone?

One post I read a few days ago stated that Lochte’s training would have a negative effect on many clients.  The author felt that many of their clients would come in begging to include tire flips, etc in their training.  He’s probably right.  I’m sure that due to the publicity, many athletes and coaches will suddenly want to include these in their training.  Guess what?  In general, that’s probably not a good idea.  Remember, training programs should be individualized based on many factors including what the athlete is capable of.  There also needs to be consideration given to what the coach can safely teach the athlete.  This is where my greatest fear is.  I hope that coaches stick with what is right and with what they can safely teach.  Unfortunately, some won’t and they will end up needlessly injuring some athletes.

Mark

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How Important Is Landing In Preventing ACL Injuries?

Drag Racing Pic

No question that it will go fast. But how does it stop without crashing?

I have previously written about the role of a proper landing in the prevention of ACL injuries.  I thought that I would expand on that somewhat.  We often think about landing playing a role in basketball and volleyball injuries.  I’ve also had it happen to athletes playing football, soccer, and lacrosse.  If we take time to carefully evaluate our athletes, many of them in all sports display poor landing mechanics.  This can put the knee into an awkward position and can cause extra stresses to be placed on the ACL.  Since an ACL reconstruction generally keeps an athlete out of action 6 months, anything that we can do to help prevent these injuries can be huge for our athletes.

So, what can be done to help?  We often get into a hurry to get kids running and jumping too fast.  In my mind, when car gurus design a newer, faster car, they make sure to spend plenty of time designing and testing the braking system before they take the car on any test runs.  It should be the same with athletes.  We need to test and train the braking systems before we go crazy with the jumping and running.  The simplest way to help your athletes is to teach them how to land properly.  Now this isn’t just a 5 minute drill that you do once and never repeat.  You have to emphasize landing every time that you do a jumping drill.  We all want to see how high or how far the kid jumps.  However, it’s probably more important to watch how they land.  Yes, you should try to watch and coach everything.  Just make sure that you are putting emphasis on the landings.

Want to see the effect that proper landings can have?  Myers and Hawkins published a study in 2010 that looked at changes in tibial shear forces when they worked on landing mechanics.  They found a 56% decrease in forces when the emphasized proper mechanics.  The athletes that they worked with also increased their vertical jump about 2.5 cm.  The only negative was the fact that the athletes tended to revert to their old habits once they got tired (see this article on knee landings which discusses the study further).

I think that a 56% decrease in forces could make a huge difference in ACL rupture prevention for athletes.  Because of this, make sure to emphasize it during your training.

So how should the athletes land?

  1. Should land on their toes
  2. Keep their knees flexed
  3. Keep their head/shoulders up
A good way to check on their landings is to listen.  The athlete should “land softly”.  If you hear a loud landing, it’s a good sign they they landed on their heels and probably had their knees straight.  This type of landing puts too much force through their ankles, knees, and hips.

As for how to limit the return of bad habits once your athletes get tired, I have two suggestions:

  1. Repetition, repetition, repetition
  2. Make sure to do some of the landing training when the athletes are tired.  We all get sloppy when we are tired.  Putting them into this stage for some of the training will give you a chance to show them what happens and then correct it.

Happy Landings,

Mark

 

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Post Season Recovery For Athletes – How?

Basketball Hoop Pic

In my previous post on post-season recovery, I discussed why it is important for athletes to recover after their season concludes.  Now lets discuss some guidelines for how to accomplish sufficient recovery.

First off, remember that these guidelines are based on an ideal situation.  As we all know, those rarely happen in the sports world.  Since the NBA Finals are going on right now, we’ll use them as an example.  In case you’re not paying attention to the finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder are playing the Miami Heat. If that series goes the full 7 games, their season won’t finish until June 26th.  Obviously making the finals is a great achievement and no team would trade that for anything.  At the same time, teams that didn’t make the playoffs finished playing their last games on April 26th.  That’s two months before the Heat and Thunder will be done.  To fully put things in perspective, last year NBA training camps were originally scheduled to open October 3rd.  That was before the lockout ended up shortening the season.  If the dates stay similar in 2012, that means that the teams that didn’t make the playoffs will have as much as two extra months to strength train for next season.  It also means that they will have more time to recover from the rigors of the 2011-12 season.  The odd twist is that the teams that had the best seasons and played the most games will have the least amount of time to recover.  As a strength coach you have to be prepared to work around multiple issues, especially if the length of your off-season can be drastically shortened by your teams success.

So what guidelines should you follow during your recovery?

  • Heal Up – during a season, almost every player ends up with some bumps and bruises.  No matter how my we work to prevent them, it’s going to happen.  Many of these can be healed up with some rest.  For more significant injuries, make sure to continue rehabbing them.  With no time devoted to practice and games, you should be able to make some serious headway towards getting well.
  • Check For Imbalances – Checking for imbalances ties in closely with rehab.  Over the course of a season, players can develop numerous strength and flexibility imbalances.  As an example, baseball pitchers tend to develop greater external rotation in their pitching shoulder during the season.  Some people believe that this can lead to other problems if it is not addressed in the off-season.  Step one to solving these problems is to identify them right after the season.  Then the player can begin to work on them during the recovery phase.
  • Stay Active – This phase is a recovery phase, not a sit on the sofa and be lazy phase.  In many of the publications on periodization, this phase if called “active rest”.  Athletes need to stay active to some extent, even during recovery.  Staying active doesn’t mean going to the gym for a two hour lift-a-thon.  It does however mean doing something physical.  This is a great time for athletes to participate in other fitness or sports activities that they enjoy.  I read once that Arnold Schwarzenegger used to enjoy riding bikes and playing volleyball after he competed in the Mr. Olympia each year.  I believe that it can be beneficial for athletes to follow the same sort of plan.  Find one activity (or several) that you enjoy doing that will help you to exercise.  Then participate in this activity several times a week.  The idea is to keep yourself active, break a sweat, use your muscles, and get your heart and lungs going.  If you do choose to lift weights, keep things light – 3 sets of 10-12 at bout 70% of your one rep max is a good guideline.
  • Rest – Yes, you should rest your body during this recovery time.  Get plenty of sleep and relax some.  This is not the time to stay out until all hours of the night partying it up.  Enjoy time with your family and friends but just remember, the crazier you get with your lifestyle, the harder it will be to get back into peak shape later.
The big question now is, how long should the recovery phase last?  Periodization models tend to recommend 1-2 weeks.  I have always like Arnold’s recommendation.  He said that he would stay out of the gym until he really got the itch to go back.  He figured that was his body’s way of telling him that he was ready to start training again.  I believe that two weeks is a good starting point.  If you communicate with your athletes, you may find out that some of them need more time and some need less.  You can always tweak the length of time if you need to.  If you are dealing with younger athletes, it may be necessary to provide some structure for them during this time.  If you tell them to “go rest but stay active” you will have athletes doing all sorts of things based on their own interpretation.  A structured plan may be better for them.  That way you can have some control over what they are doing for recovery.
Regardless of what the circumstances are, a post season recovery period can be very beneficial to your athletes.  Make sure to include one in your planning.
Mark

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Don’t Skip The In-Season Training Program

Sometimes sports coaches amaze me.  Over and over again, I see them emphasize the off-season training program.  They push the kids to lift, run, and lift some more.  While most of these programs are “voluntary”, participation is always highly encouraged.  So what about once the season starts?  That’s a different story.  Guess what the first thing to get cut out is?  Yep, the strength program.  During the season, the priority is to spend time practicing and prepping for games.  However, why does the strength program always seem to get cut out?  Take a look at the average sports practice.  How much time is wasted due to poor planning & coaching?  A lot.  Yet instead of making practices more efficient so that a coach can fit in the in-season strength program, they just eliminate it.  So what does this do for the kids?  Nothing positive.  The two major things skipping the in-season program does are both huge negatives:

  1. Decrease in strength – During the season, an athlete is going to get worn down, banged up, and possibly lose some strength.  If they don’t lift during the season, they will definitely lose strength.  So what do you do?  Keep them lifting.  While the kid may lose some strength during the season, the stronger they stay late into the season, the better that they can play late in the season.
  2. The injury factor – It’s widely accepted that lifting weights helps to decrease the chance of injury.  Guess what?  It may also help to decrease the time missed if a player does get an injury.  Research on high school football players compared time missed by players who received similar injuries.  It was found that those who were participating in an in-season strength program missed 1/3 of the time of other players with similar injuries.  Not all injuries can be prevented, but most coaches, players, and parents should be willing to take steps to limit the time lost from injury.

I think that these two factors are good enough reasons to make the in-season program a priority.  Why don’t sport coaches feel the same?  I guess that S & C coaches just have to keep looking for opportunities to educate sports coaches.  Maybe one day things will change.

Check back next week for more on how to design a good in-season program.

 

Mark

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Why Junction Boys Syndrome Still Exists

The May issue of the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research has an excellent article called “The Junction Boys Syndrome”.  The syndrome title is based on the book and movie called “The Junction Boys”.  These both tell the story of the year that “Bear” Bryant took over as head coach at Texas A&M.  He took his players off-campus for a brutal pre-season camp.  Numerous players were injured and/or quit the team during the camp.

The article by Scott Anderson discusses the fact that modern football “training regimens are too often built on tradition versus based on science and place players at-risk”.  He then gives us information and facts about the 21 nontraumatic deaths in NCAA FBS football since 2000.  Sixteen of these deaths occurred during strength and conditioning activities.

Is Anderson right?  Yes,  Are many of these deaths caused by the “tradition” of intense work making tougher and better football players?  Unfortunately, yes.  Why is this?  There are numerous resources available to help people design safe and effective training programs.  There are also qualified Strength & Conditioning coaches to design and implement the programs.  We even have Certified Athletic Trainers who can help monitor athletes for signs of medical problems during workouts and then care for them if necessary.  So why do we still have deaths?  I think that there are three main reasons:

  1. Influence of the Football Coaches – The S & C world is full of stories of sport coaches dictating how they want the strength and conditioning program run.  While some of this has to do with trust and respect, if the S & C Coach is qualified and competent, let them do their job.  If they aren’t qualified and competent, then hire someone who is.
  2. The “I’ll Make You Puke Mentality” – While I understand the get tough mentality, I think that if a S & C Coach uses puking as the goal for the workouts that he designs, it’s sad.  With all of the research and knowledge at our disposal, there should be a better goal that they can come up with.  Vern Gambetta has discussed his thoughts on work and makes a good point “…puking at the end of a workout is not the measure of a good training.”
  3. Tradition – It is true that in some instances, football training is still in the dark ages.  Top this with the fact that there are still numerous veteran coaches who believe in doing things traditionally, and it leads to problems.  New research is published all of the time to help show what works and what doesn’t.  S & C Coaches should constantly be trying to learn and use this knowledge to make their programs better.  As for the football coaches, see #1 above.

Should we still have nontraumatic deaths during football training?  No.  The last thing that any of us want is for one of our athletes to die due to the training program that we have designed and overseen.  Scott Anderson ends his article by saying that it is time for these deaths to stop.  I don’t see how anyone could disagree.

Mark

P.S. If you want to know how we believe that training should be, click here to find out Sports Upgrade

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Plan Management

Planning Pic

Sometimes you've got to go to plan "b"

A Kink In The Plan

Have you ever been several weeks into a team’s off-season training program a new kid suddenly shows up?  Sometimes its a kid that has moved into the area, but a lot of times it’s a kid who is coming from another sports season.  He or she has been playing sport B while his teammates in sport A have been putting in time and effort in their strength and conditioning program.  We all like working with multi-sport athletes, but it does create some interesting challenges for us as coaches.

Things To Consider

There are several things to keep in mind while trying to get these “newbies” up to speed with the rest of the group.

  • Recovery – If these athletes are coming in from another sports season, they are probably already tired, worn down, and “dinged up”.  Oftentimes these kids are rushed into the off-season program for another sport.  As a coach, I’d rather give a kid a few days off before they get started on their training program with me.  An athlete who is worn down can’t give 100% and is more likely to get hurt.  Giving them even just a week off between seasons can be beneficial.
  • Differences in training levels – Even if these athletes are “in shape” for the sport that they just finished, they won’t be in shape for the sport that they are going to.  Each sport has different physical and physiological demands.  These athletes usually can’t be expected to start off at the same level as the athletes who are currently in the off-season program.
  • Adjust the plan – When we create an off-season plan, we put all of our knowledge and know-how into it.  And now we have to change it because of one kid?  Yes.  To build on the previous point, an athlete that is coming into your program will need to be eased in ,unless he is coming from a sport that has a solid in-season program.  He won’t be able to complete the same sets, reps, and intensities as the other athletes.  Just remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  He or she will catch up to the other athletes soon enough.
  • Focus – While it is sometimes difficult to do, try to find a way to focus on these kids.  If they haven’t been lifting regularly or doing the same program, there should be an emphasis placed on technique.  That way once they catch up to the other athletes, their technique will be good.  This is especially important in lifts such as the squat, clean, and snatch.  You should also get plenty of feedback from these kids on how they feel.

What To Do?

When you have a large group of athletes, it becomes difficult to integrate a new kid into the mix.  However, for the good of the athlete, you must pay attention to these “newbies”.  All too often they show up and just get tossed into the mix with the other athletes.  While it may take some creativity to integrate them properly and at the right pace, it will benefit them in the long run.

Mark

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Coaching = Teaching

How long should you work with an athlete on a new skill?  A few minutes?  A couple of sessions?  A month?  What if they are really struggling to pick up the skill?  Do some athletes just “never get it”?

Correcting Mistakes Pic

To be a good coach, you must be a good teacher.

While it does seem that some athletes seem to pick up a new skill faster than others, there are a few things to keep in mind during the learning process.

  • Learning Styles – There are 3 different learning styles:  auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Make sure to utilize all three styles in teaching.  This will give you a much better chance at getting through to the athlete.
  • Repetition – The key to learning and perfecting a new skill is repetition.  According to motor learning scientists, it takes 300-500 reps to learn a new skill.  That will allow the body to form a “motor program” to help it complete the skill the same way almost every time.  What about changing a bad habit?  That can take 3000-5000 reps to change that faulty motor program.  That explains why it is sometimes easier to teach an inexperienced athlete a skill.
  • Coaching Is Teaching – Want to see a great teacher?  Find a great coach.  They are able to find ways to get through to their students so that they learn.  They break things down into parts, use cue words to guide, give correction when needed, and give praise when needed.  They are determined to find a way for the athlete to learn the skill.
  • All Athletes Are Different – Sometimes one athlete picks up a skill very quickly yet may it take another athlete a lot longer.  The question is, how long do you keep trying?  Do you ever just give up?   Former NFL coach Chuck Knox used to believe that all athletes could learn if their coach was a good enough teacher.  Great coaches get creative and try to find a way that will work to teach the athlete.

We all spend time trying to find the next “super exercise” or to create the perfect program.  While it is important to constantly evaluate these things, if you want to be a great coach, work on your teaching.  They best way to get better is to watch other coaches.  See if you can pick up a few tips on how they teach a skill or drill.  It will make you better.

Mark

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The Sport Specialization Solution

Softball Catcher Pic

How many games has she played this year?

I found this article about sports specialization for softball players.  If you know me at all, you know that I’m not a fan of kids specializing in one sport.  Two points from the article did encourage kids not to specialize:

  1. College coaches want multi-sport athletes because they are more well rounded
  2. “…multi-sport athletes do tend to be more well-rounded and often out-perform those who focus only on a single sport. Often the skills from one sport translate into an advantage in another, such as explosiveness in basketball or agility in soccer.”
These two statements probably don’t come as a surprise to most strength and conditioning professionals.  Unfortunately there are numerous other things in the same article that try to discourage multi-sport athletes.  I won’t get into all of the details, but I do have one question.  If playing multiple sports helps a person to develop into a more complete athlete and makes them more desirable to college coaches, why are so many athletes still playing a single sport year-round??? To add to this, many of the athletes who specialize become physical trainwrecks before they ever make it to college. Lets also not forget to mention those that mentally burn out. So if it’s not benefitting the kids, who is this helping? There are only 3 parts to this equation – the athlete, the parent, and the coach. We’ve already decided that specialization isn’t helping the athlete. That only leaves the adults. When did sports stop being about the athletes themselves?
So, what’s the solution?  It’s very simple.  Stop trying to convince parents and kids that playing one sport year round is the only way to go.  Not only is there another way, playing multiple sports is the best way to develop athletes.   Maybe if athletes weren’t being “encouraged” (forced) to focus on one sport, it would solve a lot of issues.

Mark

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Did the jumprope really need to be improved????

I was looking in a catalog recently and came across an item called the airope.  What is it?  Basically, it’s a jumprope without the rope.  It is two handles that each have a short length of rope attached to them. For a better idea, please see the picture below.

airope pic

Want to take the athleticism out of jumping rope?

I guess the idea is to make it easier to do jump rope activities with people who may struggle to get the hang of it.  The price – $35.  Of course, for $5 I can buy a regular jump rope and do numerous activities with clients.  What if they have problems getting used to using the rope?  Wouldn’t it be easier to start them with the “non-rope” version?  NO!!!  Easier isn’t the point.  Jumping rope is and always has been a great training tool.  It helps to develop balance, coordination, and let’s not forget the plyometric benefits of the jumping itself.  Why take away any of the benefits?  If you have a client who can’t jump rope, loan them one and have them practice at home.

As for drills that I have clients do using the rope, here is a partial list:

  • Two foot jumps in place
  • One foot jumps in place
  • Two foot lateral jumps
  • Variations of form running while using a jumprope (high knees, etc)
  • One/Two foot jumps while moving

Obviously it is important to start off with the easiest jumps and progress to more difficult ones.  I feel that jumping rope is one activity that should be incorporated into your training plans regularly.  I try to find a place for it at least once a week.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, I use the $5 – $10 ropes.  They work just fine and they keep the athleticism in the activity.

Mark

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