Volleyball Fitness for Injury Prevention

Volleyball Fitness for Injury Prevention

We are excited to have a guest post from Wendy LeBolt who holds advanced degrees in exercise physiology and has 10 years of experience teaching exercise and sport science at the college level.  She has a wealth of information to share on how to prevent injuries in volleyball and more information can be found on her blog Fit2Finish.  Here is Wendy:

Thanks for inviting me to guest post, I’d like to offer an essential ingredient for every youth coach’s playbook: fitness training to prevent injuries in their youth athletes.

When I first founded Fit2Finish, I queried coaches – youth, club, high school and college — about how they prevented injuries in their players and many laughed at the idea. “Injuries are just part of the game,” they told me. “They’re gonna come no matter what we do. We can’t prevent them.” Now, when I tell athletes about this old-fashioned response, they laugh in disbelief. Now we know there are plenty of things we can do to protect our athletes against injury, even if we can’t prevent all of them. The key is finding what works with your players in your sport.

It’s typical to look at the injuries themselves for clues about how to prevent them. Got ankle sprains? Strengthen the ankles. Got knee strains? Strengthen the knees. Got shoulder pain? … etc. It’s diagnose, then treat the symptoms. That’s the way we do medicine in this country, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, and it doesn’t bear fruit in long term injury prevention. If we’re serious about preventing injuries, we have to look at the demands of the game and how the players respond to them. (I will focus on physical demands, but this is equally true of mental, emotional and psychological demands as well.)

Keep in mind that the key to all sports training is to help players be prepared for the game.

First, identify what skills are needed to play the game. You probably already practice the skills: hitting, blocking, serving, receiving, setting, etc. Then, carefully observe players’ execution of each of these skills. Resist the initial urge to evaluate based on outcome or performance. Watch the skill all the way through. (ie. Preparation-hit-follow through; take off, jump and landing; toss-hit-follow through; footwork-bend-set-recover, bend-bump-recover, etc.)

Take note of weaknesses, imbalances, stumbles as well as the favoring of one side, faltering or mis-hitting. These skill errors usually have a physical explanation. There’s a reason that we move the way we do. Repeating the skill over and over without correcting the fault will only reinforce the error. Or, as often happens, the savvy player will figure out how to compensate for the weakness in order to capably perform the skill, but in doing so will actually prevent the weakest areas from getting stronger. We do this all the time. Our bodies are survival mechanisms, after all. A good coach breaks down the skill and balances the movement to strengthen performance; unhealthy compensation doesn’t happen.

This method requires patience from coach, player and parent. Be sure to caution players to: do it right before you do it fast.

Now, with the observations you’ve made you are armed with the information you need to design “injury prevention” into your training sessions. Whatever skill is the focus of the day’s training session, be sure players are performing it with their whole bodies in a strong, healthy, balanced position from start to finish. Once their form is correct, they can try it with speed and power and then under competitive conditions.

One caution: beware of too many repetitions. We want muscle memory to kick in without muscle exhaustion taking over. Stop the drill before form fails. Recap what they have learned with key points that will be cues to recover this form during play.

The most common injuries in volleyball players occur to ankles, backs, shoulders, and knees. Here are 5 training activities I use with young players, 8-18 years old, to prepare them to use these joints in healthy ways.

  1. Wall Jump for ankles and knees (and hips – which is where the movement usually breaks down putting knees and ankles at risk): Teach them to jump and land using the cue phrases: “straight as an arrow and light as a feather.” Competing for their best vertical leap height isn’t enough. Teach them to control their bodies upward (using net or opposing player as alignment) and land lightly, using their knees as a hinges or springs, landing on the balls of their feet and bending gently to absorb the force of landing. (You can divide the team in half and have them compete for highest AND quietest landing.) (Wall Jump video)
  2. Squats to “frog” jumps for knees and backs: Teach them the proper squat position, sinking the hips while keeping their heads up, eyes ahead. At the lowest point, they should be balanced enough to lift their toes up while holding the squat position. Have them wall jump (#1 above) from the squat and land softly, returning to the bent knee position. (DO NOT have teen athletes go to “deep knee bend” position, though young players enjoy doing the “frog hop.”) Notice on this frog jump video, some sink the hips (correct) and others bend at the waist (incorrect). Bending over at the waist signals poor hamstring recruitment and weak torsos.
  3. Russian hamstring for knees (and hamstrings) and torsos: Hamstring strengthening is essential to protect knees. “Russian Hamstring” partner exercises are excellent for hamstring and core strength. Be sure they hinge at the knee as they bend forward but keep torso and upper body stiff.Fit2Finish2
  4. Single leg balance and leap side for ankles: Train stronger ankles with one footed balance exercises (on an unstable surface, if available. I cut foam rollers length wise and have them balance roller-side down.) Simple one-legged leaping side to side drills strengthen lateral muscles to support the ankle in its most injury-prone position. (leap side to side video)
  5. Chest press/push ups and forward plank for shoulders: The biggest risk to shoulders is poor hitting form. When the hitting hand and arm lags behind the chest and anterior shoulder in the hit, the front of the shoulder absorbs force which it is poorly designed to tolerate. To protect the shoulder, strengthen the front of the shoulder with chest presses and/or push-ups and forward planks. In the performance of these, require the upper back to stay strong (no sagging) to serve as support and stabilizing strength. Since many young athletes are very weak in the upper body, start training these muscles early and develop strength progressively along with establishing good form for hitting. Repeating poor form will not make it better and can be a recipe for failure and long term injury. Limit the # of hits. Get the form right and success will follow.

Volleyball is a beautiful sport, powerfully played. These athletes jump to hit, dive to save, bend to bump, and squat to set. But what happens after the execution of the skill may be the most important determinant of their success and the long term health of their game. As a coach, teach the skill from start to finish by preparing their bodies to move with proper form, good balance, and smooth execution. This will allow the player to recover and be ready for the next play, the next game, and the next season.

We know that what goes up must come down. What leaps must land. What dives must slide. What squats must stand. Our job is to see that what bends won’t break. Preparing young people for success with that is a life’s work. That’s what we’re about at Fit2Finish.

Dr. LeBolt is the Founder of Fit2Finish, LLC. She is a teacher, coach, speaker, and author. Her latest book, Fit2Finish: Keeping Your Soccer Players in the Game, was released in January, 2015. Read her weekly articles for coaches, parents and players on the Fit2Finish blog or find her on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

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