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06:08 AM

How to Keep Young Athletes Competitive During COVID-19

Sports Medicine Specialist Recommends Weight Training, Exercising Outdoors, Family Activities

Many parents and school-age athletes worry that when the pandemic ends and high school athletics and youth-club sports come back, young athletes will have a hard time returning to their winning form.

But the pandemic doesn't have to put young athletes at a disadvantage, says Natasha Trentacosta, MD, sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.

Trentacosta recently sat down with the Cedars-Sinai Newsroom to share recommendations on how athletes and parents can use the extended "offseason" as an opportunity to work on skills, conditioning and family time.

Newsroom: With an unknown return-to-play date, is it feasible for young athletes to stay active and conditioned from home?
Trentacosta: Absolutely! Youth and adolescent athletes can use this time as an opportunity to work on their conditioning and skills for a great comeback.

Although competitive practice or play isn't an option for most right now, athletes should create and stick to a routine, just as if they were with the team. A conditioning routine should incorporate cardiovascular movements, weight and strength training, and core stability.

Fortunately, there have been several teams and coaches doing a good job providing athletes with the tools they need at home, either through virtual workouts or emailed weekly plans to keep up with their training while at home. You also can search the internet for movements that apply to an athlete's specific sport.

Regardless of what the workout looks like, it's important to do it safely.

Is it safe to get together with your teammates to practice or workout together?
It is feasible to practice with teammates, if you follow all the safety precautions, including wearing a mask, maintaining physical distance and working out with a limited number of people who all agree to only work out in that group.

Those who live in warm weather climates have the added benefit of taking their practice to the great outdoors. Again, safety is the key component.

It's also not always about the physical aspect of training; camaraderie is a key component that can help with individual and team morale. This can be accomplished through virtual meetups.

If young athletes don’t have access to a personal trainer, what alternatives do you suggest?
In general, I think the safest way to work on your conditioning with other people during the pandemic is with your household. Many of us have a built-in team with those living under our same roof.

Parents can make physical activity fun while simultaneously working on skills specific to their child's sport and their mental game.

For example, if your child plays basketball, have a playful challenge to bring in that competitive mental game. Perhaps play a game of horse or, for soccer, have a shootout in the backyard or at a park.

Athletes could also coordinate their own virtual workout with a teammate or a friend.

That sounds like fun, but what if the athlete is "too cool" to be playing with the family?
For adolescent high-level athletes, especially high school age, that may be the case.

Parents need to keep in mind that staying in shape in the offseason is likely to come easier for these athletes because they are already used to the discipline that is required of them.

What could be more challenging is the mental part of the game. For example, high schoolers working toward earning athletic scholarships or playing in college might find that without official seasons, it's hard to keep focused on their end goal.

That's when parents and coaches can remind athletes to focus on what they can control. It really has been and will continue to be a mental game, challenging athletes' mental grit.

For instance, it's not uncommon for coaches to have had previous games recorded, so I recommend asking to watch old game tapes. With professional sports back on TV, athletes can record the game themselves and study it to gain pointers.

With the few sports back in play, what are the most common injuries you've been seeing?
Children and adolescents are still growing and developing and have certain weak points on their growth plates that can be more prone to overuse injuries.

I'm seeing more Little League elbow (medial epicondylitis) in baseball pitchers who haven't pitched in a couple months and are expected to jump into the season or back-to-back games in a weekend tournament, without enough practice time in between.

Stress fractures in the foot and ankle is another type of injury I'm seeing these days, especially in soccer. Athletes who hadn't been running since March are now heading back out on the field trying to run the same amount as they were before.

It's important to have realistic expectations that it's going to take a couple weeks to get back to where they were. It's not an overnight thing. I think we all can forget that it's much quicker to lose conditioning than to gain it back.

What if your child has had COVID-19 or is experiencing symptoms? Can they still practice?
Even though COVID-19 has been rare in children, if a child or adolescent has had COVID-19 or symptoms, they should check with their doctor before returning to play.

Children who test positive but have milder or no symptoms are recommended to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days and should obtain clearance from their pediatrician prior to returning to sports and exercise. 

In those rare cases when children test positive and exhibit severe symptoms, such as hypertension, arrhythmias or organ failure, restriction from exercise and sports could extend up to six months, until they are symptom-free and cleared by both a pediatrician and a cardiologist prior to return. Viral infections can cause myocarditis, a condition that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood and can cause a rapid or abnormal heartbeat.

To prevent athletes from getting sick in the first place, the basic tenets recommended to protect against COVID-19 apply to all viral illnesses: 

  • Make sure children older than 2 wear a mask.
  • Teach and practice good hand hygiene.
  • Encourage children to cough or sneeze into their elbow or a tissue.
  • Ensure there's a safe distance between your child and other individuals.
  • Help children maintain a solid sleep schedule.
  • Provide children a healthful diet boasting plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Play like the Pros: Take a Break