As beneficial as skills and conditioning are for youth athletes during the pre-season, come playoff and tournament season their needs shift dramatically. They are transformed from team players into individual endurance athletes.
By the time they endure a long car ride or flight to a 2-day tournament, the window to develop sport specific skills, physical and mental conditioning, and team cohesion is long gone. The focus becomes helping these teenagers thrive in, or at the least endure through, 4-6 games in a 24-36 hour period. It is physically and mentally taxing and the ability to manage nutrition, hydration, physical and mental energy is no small task for athletes and parents alike.
The ability to know how to rest and recover in between games, overnight and after the tournament is a competitive performance advantage. Convincing teenagers to be open to managing their own rest and recovery efforts can be its own endurance event but fortunately experience is the best teacher. Experience with physical and mental exhaustion and losses blamed on "dead legs" can open a door to begin to talk about and employ the rest and recovery benefits of yoga and other techniques.
Here are three ways you can support the athletes in your house or on your team:
- Inversions: Explore the use of "Legs up the Wall" (or tree or chain link fence) as a recovery pose in-between games. The relationship of the legs to gravity found in this pose is very beneficial for tired limbs. Towels soaked in ice water and wrapped tightly around the calves can provide additional benefit. A description of Legs up the Wall pose is found at the bottom of this post.
- Massage: Use of foam rollers and therapy balls for self-massage after a full day of games and then again in the morning before bracket play can provide a tool to help release trigger points and tight muscles. My favorite resource for foam rolling is a book called Pro-Roller Massage Essentials by Angela Kneale. Google Yoga Tune-Up (TM) to find free videos and other resources on self massage and ball rolling techniques.
- Restorative Yoga: Discover restorative yoga, a style of yoga meant to renew, relax and provide an antidote to physical and mental stress. Active rest the day after a tournament can help relieve sore muscles and speed recovery. In restorative yoga, your body is fully supported in poses by props (blankets, straps, towels, blocks, bolsters) so that your muscles can slowly and safely relax and your breath and mind can find a calm, steady natural flow state. You can find restorative yoga videos at www.sagerountree.com or via subscription at www.yogavibes.com
My thoughts on this topic have been formed by my own experiences as a mother and a yoga teacher. An additional input to my thoughts was an ESPN article entitled, "The Kids are Alright"* The article explored the question of whether our youth sports culture and its physical and mental demands are asking too much of our kids. Their anecdotal conclusion is that, yes, the kids are alright. They are having a blast because we treat them like professional athletes with all the fun of travel tournaments, high-level competition, and the camaraderie of their teammates.
However, I continue to think about the question posed by one of the experts in the article who asked, "As the adults in charge, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves this: In the interest of our kids' long-term development, are we doing all we can do?" I don't have the answer to this, but in my experience we are front-loading skill development and athletic conditioning and missing an opportunity to teach about the self-care of rest and recovery that needs to be done during competition and on the back-end. All the skill development that comes before competition can get completely lost in physical and mental exhaustion on game day. Let's make sure we are doing all that we can do to support the whole athlete and teach them to take care of themselves for the long run.
Legs Up The Wall Pose: Bring your hips to the wall and roll over onto your back with your hips and low back resting on the ground or if you have one, a rolled up towel. Move around to find just the right place for you. You want to be far enough away from the wall so that your hamstrings aren't forced into too deep of a deep stretch. Find your comfort level here to feel supported and allow a gentle stretch to occur. Your arms can come out to the side or even overhead. Allow your self to breathe and release. This pose can be done anywhere and is a great way to spend the time between games at tournaments.