A few weeks ago, I watched a high-school player practice and listened to her coach and parents discuss her progress and training. Their discussion caused me to fear for the player. Unfortunately, her story is becoming increasingly common.
The coach promoted the player to college coaches. She is a nice player, and certainly a college prospect, but she is not as good as the coach believes. Because of the politics in youth sports, I imagine that she will sign an NCAA D1 scholarship, although I am not sure that I would sign her at an NCAA D2 school.
As the coach and parents discussed the player, they spoke about her work ethic, her need to train more, her diet, losing weight, and a number of similar things. It was clear that she was a smart player and worked hard. She has a solid build, but not overweight. Until the parents and coaches started to discuss her weight, it had not registered in my consciousness. She was not the quickest player, but she was a tall guard; she could be runway-model skinny, and she would not be the quickest guard. Those are not the genes that she was given; it was not her weight.
The coach, player, and parent were overly-concerned about her weight and body type, which is rarely a positive. Could she have been in better shape? Maybe, although nobody in the gym appeared to have a significant conditioning advantage. Could she get stronger? Yes. There is not a female high-school basketball player in the country to which I would answer no to that question. Is working hard a positive? Generally-speaking, yes.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the player is injured. Rather than showcasing her skills to college coaches at the exposure events this week, she is at home resting and rehabbing with some form of stress reaction.
In my strength & conditioning course last semester, one main idea that everyone learned was: There is no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovery. Injuries occur when load exceeds capacity; that load may be an acute load, as with the forces imparted on the body when landing from a jump or being tackled by an opponent, or chronic, as with the load accumulating over time. An overuse injury occurs when the chronic load exceeds the capacity to tolerate this load. Many factors contribute to this capacity.
In this instance, based on the stories that I heard and the discussions that I witnessed, her tolerance likely was compromised by her desire to lose weight to please her coach and parents. Increasing training volume and intensity while simultaneously decreasing calorie consumption is one way to decrease capacity and increase the likelihood of an overuse injury.
My viewpoint is speculation based on some knowns (the overheard conversations, the injury) and some unknowns (her training, diet, etc). However, this story is not unfamiliar in one way or another. Everyone now brags on Twitter and Instagram about the grind. Carmelo Anthony and DeAngelo Russell posted videos of their post-midnight workouts. Is working out at midnight better than working out at noon? People get excited about a player’s dedication because he works out in the dark, but is that smart? Does working out in the middle of the night demonstrate discipline or dedication or is it more to show off for millions of followers on social media?
Similarly, teams repeatedly post their pictures of their 5:00 A.M. or 6:00 A.M. workouts that prove their toughness. Really? Waking up does not make one tough, and a lack of sleep likely leads to greater or earlier feelings of fatigue, meaning that 6:00 A.M. workout likely accomplishes less than one at 10:00 A.M. after a full night of sleep.
Diet (nutrition) and sleep are the two primary methods of preventing under-recovery. A poor diet and a lack of sleep prevent the body’s full recovery before the next workout. When the mind and body are not recovered, opportunities for injuries, acute and chronic, increase. When a player overtrains, and under eats, the player sets herself up for an injury. Grinding for a month to show one’s dedication, only to end up injured and out for 6-8 weeks, causes a net loss in practice time! It is difficult to predict injuries, but it is possible to train intelligently. Smart training involves more than the time on the court; an athlete’s lifestyle must complement the training.
I feel bad for this player because the injury was predictable based on the overheard conversations. I imagine that the family and the coach see the injury as bad luck and do not associate it with the extra workouts or the under-eating or the added stress that she likely feels to please them; they may feel that if she was skinnier, she would not have suffered this injury. Who knows? Maybe they are right. Everyone is an expert. I feel it is a problem when we push high-school athletes to the point where they injure themselves because we value the wrong things.
[Update: At some point between the practice that I witnessed (late May), and the middle of her senior season, she quit basketball].