Student-Athlete Fitness in the Off-Season

Any parent of a student-athlete knows when their child’s sport is in season, it’s “game on” (so to speak). Multiple weekly workouts, practices, scrimmages, meets and games can become like a full-time job as these young athletes strive for greatness. But when the season ends and their schedule clears up, should you let your child relax on the couch, or tell them to hit the gym? The answer: A little of both.

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“Development and skill are made during the off-season. We get better in the off-season,” says Zachary Woodley, PT, DPT, an OrthoCarolina physical therapist who specializes in sports medicine.

Parking it on the couch for an entire off-season (or while your child’s sport is on COVID-related hiatus) could have real consequences once the season resumes.

“Your performance will suffer. You may feel a step slower or feel more winded when you’re playing,” Woodley says. “And the last thing you want is to go through a season where you can’t play becaue of COVID, and then go back and have a recurring injury — that’s compromising two seasons.”

If your student athlete works out incorrectly (or not at all) and then heads straight back onto the field or court when the season resumes, they’re at risk for injury.

“We’ll see soft tissue injuries — hamstrings, quads calves — and these problems can linger throughout the season,” Woodley says.

Working out smarter, not harder

So how and when should your student-athlete be training during the off-season? You’ll need to ask their coach for specific workouts and training schedules, but a good general rule is to make sure they’re finding a good balance of cardio and strength workouts, says Woodley.

Many student-athletes use the off-season to get stronger, hitting the gym for weight training. Others use the time to increase speed and stamina, going for daily long runs.

“It depends on their age and sport and what the parent and child are comfortable with,” he says. “But not forgetting one or the other — cardio or strength — is very important.”

According to the International Youth Conditioning Association, the bulk of the work done in the off-season should focus on improving foundational movement patterns like jumping, landing, decelerating, squatting, hinging at the hip, pushing, and pulling.

COVID has complicated workout plans for many students who don’t have access to the gym like in years past. However, the answer isn’t to give up on strength training in favor of running a few miles and calling it a day, Woodley says.

Strength training is an important piece of the puzzle for injury prevention, but don’t despair if you aren’t comfortable letting your child hit the gym. You might just have to help your child get creative.

“Fitness equipment does make it nicer, but you can find things around the house to help you accomplish the goals you’re looking for,” Woodley says. “So you don’t have dumbells but a gallon of milk weighs seven or eight pounds. You could use a backpack and weighted discs. Fill a five-gallon bucket with water and use it as weight. You’re only limited by your imagination.”

Build in time for rest

One important note about the off-season: it should truly be an “OFF season.” That means your kids should have a period of time where they’re not competing in their sport at all.

“Lots of kids nowadays try to play all year, but mental and physical rest are important,” Woodley says.

Overuse injuries like elbow problems for high school pitchers and rotator cuff issues for tennis players can be a sign that your child isn’t giving his or her body enough time to rest, according to The International Youth Conditioning Association.

And sometimes “rest” is as simple as having your child switch up workouts to give joints and muscles a break.

“For example, someone who plays a sport with lots of ground impact like basketball could try swimming and biking to take the impact off the joints,” Woodley says.

Need more tips for keeping your student-athlete fit when they’re off the field? Contact the professionals at OrthoCarolina.

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