I’m a little fired up today!
Last week, I had the awesome opportunity to go work with a college program out in Oregon. Over the course of the week, the coaches and athletes went through multiple application sessions, testing and evaluation, and program comprehension sessions. This team relies on us, in a remote capacity, to oversee their dryland program. The energy was off the charts and the team is locked and loaded for a massive year.
However, when it was time to complete assessments on the freshmen, something alarming started to surface.
10 out of 18 freshmen experienced pain in at least one shoulder when completing a simple shoulder impingement test during the assessment.
When completing this small range of motion exercise during their assessment, 10 athletes complained of pain in one or both shoulders.
I always follow up a pain response with a question about whether it is just “tight” or if an athlete is feeling pain. After we figure out if it is just tightness or if it is pain, I dig a little deeper.
“Have you told anyone about this pain?”
This is where things get scary. A handful of the athletes told me about how they had tried to talk to past coaches about the pain, but they never felt like the pain was taken seriously.
The pain had gone on for months. The athletes were told to just keep swimming. In some cases they were told to stop swimming but not offered any guidance on how to fix the issue.
Now I know some coaches may argue that the athlete did not follow up correctly or the athlete did not understand the message the coach was trying to deliver.
If this is the message the athlete receives, are we truly succeeding as coaches?
I would say we are missing the mark if this is the outcome. A common theme I hear out of swim coaches is that they wished athletes would communicate with them more. What if athletes are trying to communicate but we keep missing the mark on responding to that communication?
The athletes I worked with last week arrived from multiple club and high school programs. They have a wide range when looking at the length of their swimming careers. Their personalities are all different.
Coaches, it is time to stop sweeping shoulder pain under the rug and hoping it will just go away.
We need to constantly address this issue with assessment of athletes and communication with athletes.
I understand the life of a swim coach is busy and that it is hard to fit in another task. Yet, I also know coaches are, generally, good hearted people. All we want is for an athlete to succeed. Minimizing shoulder issues is necessary for that success to happen.
What should you do?
The good news is that you can change the effect shoulder injuries have on your team! It takes a simple approach to make meaningful change. Are you ready to make a change?
Step #1: Assessment
The first key is implementing a regular assessment for the shoulders. We like to use two main tests for the shoulders and then also look at thoracic spine mobility. The shoulder and the thoracic spine are coupled together because of the high level of interaction between the two areas, ESPECIALLY IN SWIMMING.
Shoulder Test #1:
This is a really simple one to complete and score. All you are looking for is if an athlete feels pain (yes or no). If an athlete does feel pain, they could be dealing with some shoulder impingement.
Shoulder Test #2:
Make two fists and send the arms out away from the body. Now try to touch the two fists together in the middle of your back without driving your hips forward. To keep this test simple, the first thing I want you to look for is a difference between sides. Was one side significantly easier or harder?
The next thing to look for is how far the fists are apart. Ideally we would like the fists to be less than a fist distance apart. Anything over two fists apart needs to be addressed quickly!
There are plenty of other shoulder assessments out there, but we have found these to be easily implementable and repeatable in large team groups.
Step #2: Create a Movement Culture
In swimming, coaches and athletes fall into the trap of reacting instead of preventing. Creating a movement culture within a team or organization is a quick and effective way to change the course on pain and injuries.
The first thing I always urge teams to do is warm up before hitting the water. Whether you are the coach of a youth program, college team, or masters program, athletes rarely come ready for practice.
What I mean by this is they have not warmed up properly before hopping in the water for their first strokes of practice.
Carve out 10-15 minutes in your swim practice to take the team through some movement preparation. Not only does this brings the team together, it gives coaches a chance to get a pulse on how the team feels on a given day. Completing a warm up on land also shows athletes the value and power of focusing on injury prevention for just a few minutes each day.
I like picking a new athlete to lead the warm up each day. This works on leadership qualities and confidence building. I also find that once an athlete leads the warm up, they remember it better themselves.
Sample Warm Up (10-15 minutes): Complete 2-3 rounds of the following.
The biggest key is to focus on this stuff almost daily! We wait for issues to arise before acting. Doing this simple routine daily helps keep the musculature and joints interacting properly minimizing pain and injury.
If you’re a little behind schedule or need a jumpstart with your movement quality, join our Movement Challenge. You will be guided through daily routines to optimize movement.
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Step #3: Implement a Communication Protocol
Do you want your athletes to feel like they are taken seriously? Then give them the tools they need to feel that way.
This protocol does not need to be an elaborate process. Have a step by step procedure for when an athlete experiences shoulder pain. This way you know how to address the situation properly and an athlete’s pain and injury fails to get noticed or correctly in a timely manner.
The biggest key, agree on this protocol as a team! Invite the athletes in to help with it’s construction. They are much more likely to follow the protocol and use it correctly when they helped create it!
Take a step back and evaluate your shoulder assessment process. It does not take long to see the positive changes amongst a team.
What About the Returners?
Let’s go back to the college I was talking about at the start of this post. The returners have been regularly participating in some form of dryland/resistance training for at least a year. They have zero cases of shoulder pain during the shoulder tests. The head coach is very tactical with her practices and uses each yard in the water wisely. She also values a dryland program for injury prevention and performance.
Take a step back and evaluate how you handle shoulder pain. Let’s improve the sport and the lives of swimmers for years to come.
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