Acclimating to athletics amid COVD-19: Young athletes must find balance to avoid sports withdrawal

Sanford POWER director Scott Hettenbach (back left) works with athletes in Sanford's middle school workout program at the Sanford Sports Complex in Sioux Falls. (Courtesy of Sanford Health)

SIOUX FALLS -- Being locked inside for weeks creates restlessness, but rest may be best for prep athletes at the moment.

It has been a month since South Dakota high school athletes have gone to practice, entered the weight room and put on a jersey in competition for school and community pride.

The cancelation of sports has been unbearable for many, but the unwelcome break caused by COVID-19 could prove beneficial for young athletes. Spring sports seasons are generally condensed due to unpredictable weather conditions, coupled with athletes attempting to balance multiple sports -- such as track and field, baseball, travel basketball and weight training for fall sports -- all at once.

While everyone is eager to return to normalcy, the break from competition could help save young athletes from injuries and fatigue related to overuse.

“There are those kids that play multiple sports that get beat up in the spring and this gives them a chance to press pause,” said Scott Hettenbach, the director of Sanford Power. “We don't know how long it’s going to last, so a month or a couple weeks is probably great. If it lasts longer than that, you start to detrain and you don’t have issues with the overuse piece anymore.”


A study performed by the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness found adolescents that spend more hours per week than their age playing sports are 70 percent more susceptible to overuse injuries, while another study from the University of Wisconsin found kids that play one sport eight months out of the year are three times more likely to suffer an overuse injury to the knee or hip.

Striking a balance between rest and sports is not always a physical problem, however, as many young athletes have forged an identity based on exploits in the athletic arena.

Attending school, followed by practice or a game is part of an athlete’s daily routine, but many are also recognized and known in the community and by peers as athletes and it is hard to shake that persona from the couch in their living rooms.

“The 15-year-old volleyball player, unfortunately their parents typically ask them more about volleyball than what happened in school that day,” said Andy Gillham, a Sanford sports performance specialist in the area of mental aspects in sports. “... When you’ve been playing a sport for years upon years, that’s when the identity stuff really kicks in, and not surprisingly, that’s also when the overuse injury stuff can start to jump up. They really go hand-in-hand.”

Striking a balance

While rest is imperative for an athlete, simply abstaining from physical activity for several weeks or months is not the proper course either.

Muscle atrophy begins to set in after two weeks of physical inactivity and athletes must rebuild their strength rather than continuing to build off of the already developed muscles and skills.

The Sanford POWER hockey team goes through a workout at the Sanford Sports Complex in Sioux Falls. (Courtesy of Sanford Health)


Even if an athlete chooses to rest from playing basketball or baseball, they can still work on strengthening certain weaknesses or learning to prepare mentally as a substitute.

“Once you get past two weeks, it starts to become an extended snow day,” Hettenbach said. “Those of us that are a little more competitive, you get the itch to get back to whatever your sport is. Having structure helps. … Sitting around for two weeks isn’t going to help. You can work on some of your weaknesses. There are things that you can work on now that will help you coming out the other side.”

Kids can also satisfy the need for a competitive sport by finding different competitive atmospheres, whether it is board games, card games, or any activity that keeps the mind active.

“If you can’t be competitive in the athletic arena that you wanted to, you can find other ways,” Hettenbach said. “Not that kids should be playing video games all the time, but there is a niche for that. You can dive into other things you had wanted to do to broaden your horizons to be competitive that can carry over to athletics. The more you’re competitive internally, I think that can play into individual or team sports.”

One of the most important areas for a young athlete, particularly during the lull of the coronavirus, is finding a coach or parent that can be trusted. A schedule and athletic regimen is typically set by an adult nowadays, compared to years prior to the boom of organized youth sports.

Rather than a group of neighborhood kids deciding which sport to play and for how long, adults tend to make the rules more frequently, so they must understand the limits and design a program that suits each individual athlete.

“Looking back, kids could self-monitor. They were the barometer to decide whether they were hurting or tired or what sport they were playing,” Hettenbach said. “You decided what your activities looked like based on what you wanted to do and how you felt. In today’s society, it’s not so much dictated by kids as it is adults.”

Easing into return of sports

Proper management of workout habits will not end with the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, it may be more crucial once athletic activities do return, especially if the shutdown extends into the summer months.


Being pent up indoors will undoubtedly lead to a mass exodus in all realms of society, including sports and it has created fear from medical experts of an increased number of injuries from athletes that attempt to train too hard too soon.

During the early stages of the coronavirus-induced postponement of sporting events at all levels, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred stated a desire for at least one month of training before games can be played. Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly also said five weeks of practice was desirable before playing.

If a collection of the greatest physical specimens in the world need an extended time frame to return to peak athletic prowess, high school athletes will likely need a similar period, if not more. Not only are nagging injuries such as muscle strains and pulls a concern, but so is structural damage like torn ligaments and muscles.

“I’m not convinced kids know what they’re missing,” Gillham said. “So, I think they’re going to be over-excited to get back to sports, get back to performance and I have a fear that the athletes are going to be so excited and the coaches are going to be so excited that we’re going to see a rash of injuries. Everyone is somewhere between deconditioned and sedentary. As soon as they get their cleats on, they’re going to want to go too hard too fast.”

With no playbook on how to handle such a prolonged layoff, the onus to design appropriate workouts will be put upon coaches and strength experts once sports resume. High school coaches get a limited amount of time with athletes each week and preseason periods are shorter than those in the college and professional ranks, forcing everything to occur at an accelerated pace.

Depending on the length of time athletes are off, that may need to change drastically to reduce injuries.

“We can’t just go back to where we were a month or two ago and utilize those same workouts that are built or go by where they were at that time last year,” Hettenbach said. “We have to have a progression for athletes to get them reloaded and acclimated based on when their sports are. Athletes can do themselves a favor by keeping some level of fitness now, so when we get back, they’re not starting from ground zero.”

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