This fall marks my 7th year as either a competitor or provider in collegiate athletics. During these seven years, I’ve been fortunate to do my part in 4 different programs at the Division I level. These experiences have been as narrow as a football only focus to as broad as encompassing all varsity collegiate sports. Being in college athletics long enough, you encounter both consistencies and diversities from school to school. I’ve seen a range of skill sets, coaching styles, training atmospheres, etc.
As different as one school may be from another there are always constants to collegiate athletics. There are right ways, and wrong ways to do things. This applies to all aspects of the athletics department. Leadership, work ethics, strength training, you name it. The bottom line is just as in a business, there are many things that successful athletic programs do across the board. When a high enough majority of athletes do more right than wrong things, it translates to success on the field. As a provider over the last few years and looking back to years when I was in competition, these same principles apply to athlete rehabilitation and recovery.
The Basis of Recovery
It is inevitable for an athlete to undergo a certain degree of wear. Eventually every athlete will begin to break down from activity in their sport. Each person is different, and will break down at a different rate or handle stress from training differently. This means that time plays a huge factor in the development of injury, dysfunction, and compensation.
When the body is being pushed to perform, it will in turn encounter an amount of breakdown and wear. This can be from workouts, practice, competition, etc. In its essence, recovery is based around supporting the healing response that naturally occurs to overcome and build from this training breakdown. The better an athlete can recover, the more they will build, perform, and avoid injury. Injury avoidance is often the least recognized in collegiate athletes, as it usually isn’t realized until AFTER injury occurs. True to form, the longer an athlete competes, the better chance of injury caused from this general wear and tear. The most common cause of muscle strains and non-contact injuries are by far excessive, repetitive stress, compensations, and chronic dysfunctional motor patterns.
Why Start at High School?
So why should you as a high school athlete care about this? You never feel very sore after competition or training, can get 5 hours of sleep a night and feel great in the morning, and can eat whatever you want without seeing much performance drop? Really, statistics tell us that only a fraction of high school athletes make it to the collegiate level (especially Division I). On top of that, only a certain amount actually PLAY in college. Of those who play significant time in college, few make it to the professional level. So does building recovery habits now really matter? If you’re a high school athlete who is serious about playing at a high level, yes, it absolutely does.
Eventually, everyone reaches a breaking point. A high school athlete can get away with 5 hours of sleep now, but what happens when he steps into a college arena, where being an athlete is literally a full time job while also having school? And as a former athlete, I can tell you that you won’t have to worry about the soreness argument. NOTHING you do at a high school level is remotely close to the challenges of workouts and practices at the higher levels of collegiate athletics. A normal practice in college is the equivalent of the hardest game you played in high school. And no training session in high school can prepare you for the demands of training at this level either. How about nutrition? I will honestly say that my one regret of collegiate athletics is not taking nutrition as seriously as I do now. I absolutely regret that I didn’t spend more time picking the brain of my strength coach on proper nutrition habits. It is a FACT that the performance you get out is a direct result from the fuel you put into it. If you are a hot rod on the drag strip, would you choose to fill your tank with a shitty, low grade 87 octane? Or would you pick a 100+ octane racing fuel? These are all recovery habits that could be changed now. Think of it this way: you are performing well now with a half-assed effort towards your body. Imagine how much better you could perform if you actually able to build a few good recovery habits now?
Investing in Your Body
I have seen far too many talented and determined athletes have their careers taken away from them because of injuries which could have been prevented or prolonged. This should be the single biggest point a high school athlete gets through their head. You never know when your career is going to be up, and very few people get to leave their sport of choice on their own terms. For every Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning that goes out guns blazing atop of the world as a champion, there are countless of other athletes (Derrick Rose, Bo Jackson, etc) that see their careers changed in the blink of an eye forever. And what about the athlete that somehow seems to stand the test of time? I guarantee you they spend just as much time investing in their body and its recovery as they do preparing or practicing, if not more. Two years ago, Sports Illustrated released an article about Tom Brady’s attention to his health. From diet, to sleep, to time off, and prehabilitation, there is an insane detail to the methods that Tom Brady uses to keep himself healthy.
At the college level, specifically, a usual tell tale sign of how to tell the upperclassmen from the lowerclassmen simply by how much time they spend in the training room. Unfortunately, a good portion of them end up doing this because they are constantly beat up and now understand that the only way they will make it through the next game is by doing everything possible to heal. It’s not that they aren’t talented enough. It’s not that they can’t figure out the plays or don’t understand the game. It’s literally because their bodies are fatigued and worn to the point that they cannot perform at the level they wish to perform.
The younger players are mostly healthy and still getting away with their crappy habits and are nowhere to be seen in the building up until practice or workouts. Now that being said, some of the players do actually get it. Some have figured out that they feel better and need to be investing time to keep them from breaking down. They realize that when pro teams come calling, there are just as many factors riding on their health as there is their ability to play the game. When an NFL team signs a player, they are doing so as a business who is making an investment. No one would buy a product which is used and in bad shape.
So for the high schooler, what can be learned from this? If you are serious about wanting to play at the next level, think of it as an investment. An investment in building recovery habits is an investment in a future career. Just like in actual investing, the earlier you can begin, the more you can get out of the investment over time. Your body will not break down all at once today, tomorrow, next week, etc. It will break down slowly over time and by the time you realize you need to invest, you have run out of time to get much return out of it. Learning to spend the time building proper recovery habits and seeking out professional help to identify your weaknesses will allow you to better achieve what all athletes eventually lust for, longevity. I know as a provider, that if I get a young athlete in who is injured, I have a chance to make an impact on their recovery habits. Pain is a huge motivator, and in athletes, losing the chance to compete is an even bigger one. So I know I have a window of time in which I can persuade them of the importance of proper recovery habits. On the other hand, I know if I get a veteran player who is injured and has not spent much time in the training room, I have a limited chance of instilling any good habits into him, and thusly protecting his career. It’s simply a case of the amount of time an athlete has spent towards investing in their body’s longevity. So imagine if high school athletes, along with guidance from their coaches and parents, started investing in those habits now. They would already have a head start on doing things right. Once again, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things, and the right way to ensure a long career is to build recovery habits now.