If you are involved in athletics - as a coach, parent or athlete - you are certain to know of at least one player dealing with a knee injury.
The issues range from general aching and soreness all the way up to full ligament tears.
Most knee injuries require lengthy rehabilitation, potential surgery, and no guarantee you'll fully return to playing level you displayed before the problem began.
In short, no one wants knee injuries.
The bad news is you cannot 100% protect yourself from a knee injury. Sports is too chaotic and one wrong move can spell doom.
The good news is there are a lot of ways you can drastically lower your chances of having any sort of knee problem at all.
At our facility we prioritize knee injury prevention, and after many years have found that there are certain key areas that are most beneficial in lowering your risk:
DEVELOP FLEXIBLE HIPS
Tightness in your hips, either from a genetic disposition or through training, does not allow for fluid and athletic movement in sports. Athletes with tight hips are the ones more likely to land awkwardly and create a knee injury through non-contact. Male athletes tend to need hip flexibility more than females.
DEVELOP STABLE HIPS
It is the muscles surrounding our hip joints that controls knee movement. There are muscles and tendons that connect down to the knee and act kind of like puppet strings. When they move in harmony things are good, but when some pull better than others there can be problems. Exercises to build stability in your hips is a primary way to lower injury risk.
INCREASE CORE STABILITY
Athletes today know that a weak midsection lowers performance, but it also can put your upper body out of position during athletic movement which increases the load on one leg or the other. Picture someone making a cut but having their upper body shift too far over their plant leg, creating too much force for it to absorb. We see a need for more core stability quite often in our female athletes, who statistically are far more likely to incur a knee problem.
DEVELOP FUNCTIONALLY STRONG HAMSTRINGS
When sprinting, one of the key roles your hamstrings play is to slow down your lower leg as it swings forward before landing on the ground. Poor functional hamstring strength leads to heel striking, which sends shockwaves of energy right up your leg and can lead to chronic soreness. Exercises that develop the ability of your hamstrings to control leg movement is a critical piece in preventing knee soreness for sports that requires lots of running.
IMPROVE SPEED AND AGILITY TECHNIQUE
Without diving too deeply into the weeds here, there are dozens of small skills that can be improved to lessen the stress on your knees. (You can see some specific examples from our Instagram feed here, here and here.)
With the advent of video analysis in breaking down sprint mechanics, you can see that in many cases younger athletes stride differently on their right and left sides. Where the mechanics might be good on one side, there might be a slight difference on the other that causes extra strain on the body. This would explain why almost always a kid will complain of pain in one knee or leg while not having any on the other.
AVOID OVERUSE FROM RUNNING
Just like with anything else, too much of a thing is usually not good for you. In the case of running, massive doses puts a spotlight on any poor technique issues which can lead to soreness in the knees and elsewhere.
Youth sports is hyper-competitive these days. Kids are playing longer seasons, practicing more, and playing at higher intensities in many cases thanks to the invention of showcase tournaments.
Just as baseball coaches have guidelines to protect pitchers from throwing too much, it might be time to consider the same limitations on athletes who run constantly in their sport in order to help stem the growing tide of overuse injuries in youth sports.
AVOID HARD SPRINTING WHEN FATIGUED
A high percentage of all injuries come when an athlete is fatigued. Tired athletes tend to have poor posture, poor mechanics, and are slow to react.
There are of course two obvious solutions - improve your conditioning so you aren't fatigued often, or to limit playing time when athletes show signs of fatigue.
The first solution allows kids to play and succeed, where the 2nd does not. Ideally all kids develop a strong conditioning base so they can perform optimally in competition without putting themselves at risk of injury.
Preventing knee injuries is a complex realm, one that every sports team would love to have the magic formula for. There is still so much we need to learn, but training to hit the key areas listed above and using some best practices over the long term can dramatically lower any athlete's risk of incurring a future knee injury.