Today's young athletes are under more stress and competition than ever before. The year-round training and frequent play and tournaments can lead to burnout and injury.
"It's hard to manage the pressure and training on young athletes," says Stephen LaPlante, PT, ATC, team lead Physical Therapist at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. "Having fun participating in a sport can quickly change – especially with grueling schedules and recurring injuries. When that happens, it's time to re-evaluate how athletes are training."
One solution is load management. Long used by the NBA, load management focuses on allowing athletes to rest and recover.
LaPlante explains the basics and benefits of load management for athletes.
What is load management?
Load management monitors how much athletes train, perform and rest and makes sure that the balance of each of these is appropriate for their age and skill level. It takes into account how much an athlete trains for the same sport throughout the year, and how much time is spent competing in high-pressure situations.
"Load management is a deliberate, temporary reduction of external physiological stressors intended to improve an athlete's wellness and performance," LaPlante explains. "By reducing the amount of training and competition an athlete takes on, you help them recover, reduce injury risk factors and perform better over the long term."
LaPlante uses a car analogy when talking with athletes. "You can't run a high-performance race car at 100 mph every day without taking it in for maintenance," he says. "Athletes break down and get injured if they don't rest and recover."
Load management, he explains, is just one part of a well-rounded approach to training. Athletes need rest to heal, just as they need proper nutrition and adequate hydration to perform at their best.
How much is too much competition for young athletes?
Young athletes should not train or compete for more hours per week than their age. For example, a 12-year-old athlete shouldn't be playing their primary sport for more than 12 hours a week. Hours quickly add up when teams head to weekend tournaments or athletes are participating with two teams at once, such as a school team and a travel team.
"The pressure to constantly play is taking a toll on these players," says LaPlante. "I think it's alarming that 70-80% of youth athletes will be out of organized sports by age 14 because of burnout or injury."
Load management helps ease the burden on the body and mind so athletes can feel refreshed, recharged and focus at game time.
How to effectively practice load management.
Load management does not mean sit around and do nothing. Instead, it's about actively paying attention and finding activities that give athletes a break from the stress of their sport. LaPlante encourages athletes, parents and coaches to monitor loads with the following strategies:
- Keep a training log. A training log gives a clear, objective look at how much athletes are participating in sports during the week.
- Encourage multiple sport participation. Load management goes beyond looking at what an athlete does in a week. It also looks at training and competition throughout the year. Specializing in one sport can create too much load by constantly putting stress on the same muscles and skills. Research has proven that athletes who play more than one sport can improve their performance and skill.
- Communicate regularly. Parents, coaches and athletes should regularly check in with each other to see how practice and competition are going and to identify the warning signs of injury or burnout.
- Monitor RPE. RPE stands for the rate of perceived exertion. Athletes rate on a scale from 1-10 on how hard they feel they worked during a training session. Done accurately, pushing the body for a specific period of time can build an athlete's base, improve endurance and reduce the risk of injury. Training with a high RPE (8/10 or higher) for prolonged periods can lead to breakdown and injury
- Measure KPI. Key performance indicators (KPI) are specific subjective and objective measurements of an athlete's skill, workload and response to work. Measuring KPIs can identify early signs of injury and opportunities to improve on areas of weakness which in turn can lead to greater performance.
The only pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our programs and services.
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