By Ker’Shyra Myrick
Tennis is a sport loved by millions of kids of all ages and abilities and seeing the emergence of the sport’s newest phenom – 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff – inspires many youngsters (and their parents) to dream big, practice harder and train more often.
But too much too soon can sabotage a child’s love for the sport and drive them away from the court.
“When I was a young tennis player, I learned very quickly what burnout can do to you,” said Dr. Ricardo E. Colberg, a sports medicine and non-surgical Orthopaedic Physician at the renowned Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama. “The top five players when I was 10 years old were not in the top five when we were 14, and by the age of 16 they had stopped playing tennis altogether. They were under too much pressure at a young age, and they stopped enjoying the game. It’s important to show our kids that playing sports is fun and winning is great, but too much too soon is not always the best.”
We spoke with Colberg – a long-time avid player who has helped develop injury prevention protocols for tennis athletes through the American Sports Medicine Institute (AMSI) – on a variety of topics related to the sport. Check out what he had to share:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are some common youth and teen tennis injuries?
COLBERG: The most common injuries in tennis I tend to see in youth and teens are straining of the rotator cuff muscles and tendons in the shoulder and strain of the low back muscles. Off and on we may see someone who rolled an ankle or maybe a sprained knee or a pulled hamstring muscle. These types of injuries are mostly related to overuse or playing a lot. It's interesting because a lot of people think that tennis elbow is something that happens to all players. But tennis elbow typically happens to recreational or beginner level tennis players that don't have good form. Youth and juniors that are playing competitively typically have good, sound technique, so they seldom get tennis elbow.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can tennis injuries be treated or prevented in youth sports?
COLBERG: The best way to prevent these types of injuries is to have a good, well-balanced strength and conditioning program that allows developing the athlete, but also gives them enough space to rest. In the last decade there has been a lot of pressure with regards to developing athletes and getting them to the competitive level. At the American Sports Medicine Institute, we did a study of college level athletes and we found that athletes were twice more likely to develop an overuse injury if the training sessions lasted more than two hours. If training sessions lasted less than two hours athletes were less likely to get injured. So based on the study we want to keep kids from training for three to four hours because they cannot tolerate it.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How harmful is it for a young tennis player to keep playing if they are injured?
COLBERG: Any injury that does not resolve within three days should be evaluated by a sports medicine physician. A physician can help young players determine if this is something that he or she can play through or if it's something that may cause them to adjust their training or even consider taking a break. Since most tennis injuries are overuse, injuries could be made worse which can lead to other injuries. Most minor injuries heal within the first 72 hours. That is where the three-day rule comes from. If the injury is symptomatic for more than three days, it definitely needs to get checked out.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Some young athletes want to keep playing even if they are hurt and try to hide their injuries. What are the signs parents and coaches can look for if they suspect that there is an injury?
COLBERG: The most common sign that parents and coaches can look out for is anger and frustration while the athlete is playing. Young athletes know that there is something bothering them, and it is limiting their capacity to play, so parents and/or coaches may notice that they are slightly changing their technique. Other signs can be frustration, the athlete complaining, or a change in their mood. Kids tend to be very transparent, so they are fairly easy to read. When you do figure out something is going on, sit down and talk with them and ask “How are you doing? Is there anything bothering you?” Opening up that conversation is important because in many cases kids are anxious, or feel pressured about performing, so letting them know that you care about them and their well-being is important.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What can young tennis players do to stay injury free?
COLBERG: I encourage young kids to play a variety of sports. This allows them to become better athletes and develop more skills. For example, swimming can help you develop your anaerobic capacity and you are able to maximize the use of oxygen. When you play tennis, your aerobic endurance actually increases because of swimming, and that's something that you otherwise would not have gotten from playing tennis alone. Playing soccer gives an athlete great explosiveness in the legs and great endurance of the legs. Playing other sports will help you become a better tennis player. But keep in mind that kids should also take a break. Dr. (James) Andrews (founder of the Andrew Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center) recommends that we should allow our kids to have a three-month break from the sport every year so that the body and mind can recover. Young athletes need this break so they can rest from the sport, clear up their brains and be able to focus when they get back into the sport. Taking a three-month break during the year from sports is a good way to keep them injury free.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can parents and coaches help their young athlete cope and recover from an injury?
COLBERG: I grew up playing tennis and started when I was 6 years old, and still play to this day. I fractured my hand when I was 16, and after my injury I felt like I had fallen off a train and everyone took off and kept going without me, which was very frustrating. I remember my parents telling me not to worry and that tennis is just a sport. My parents suggested that I take some time off and since we had some weekends free, we should go on a family trip to the beach and have some fun. During the trip I was able to disconnect fairly quickly. My body got the rest it needed, and I was not depressed nor had anxiety about keeping up with what was going on in the tennis world. After a few months my hand was healed and I got back into the game like I had not missed a beat. Parents can help young athletes by allowing them to feel like they have a support system. Do not talk about missing tournaments or how they will have to wait until next year to get to nationals. Let them know that it’s going to be okay. As for coaches, take a step back and give kids some space. Allow them to take the time they need to heal and recover from their injury.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Are there any injuries that have become more prominent with young players in recent years?
COLBERG: Fractures are more common nowadays and that can be related back to the overuse component of their training and/or practice. Roughly 20 percent of junior year tennis players may develop a stress fracture. That’s about one out of every five kids developing a fracture because of overuse.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Are there any injuries that have become less problematic for young players?
COLBERG: Tennis elbow has had a slight decrease because of the advancements in tennis racket technology and softer strings. So that injury has gone down because of technology.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are the common mistakes parents make when getting their kids involved in tennis that put their child at an increased injury risk?
COLBERG: The biggest mistake when a kid starts playing is that they are playing too much, too soon. My recommendation is to start them off practicing or training once a week, maybe for 30 minutes to an hour. Then eventually you could go up to twice a week for the same amount of time. As time goes on, maybe in a year or two, then you can go up to three times a week if the kid is doing very well and they are enjoying it. I do not recommend practicing and training more than five times a week until they are 12 years old. Otherwise, it's just too much exposure. The rule of thumb is kids should not be playing more hours than their age. So if your child is 12, they should not have more than 12 hours of training in a week. My second recommendation is going back to what I said earlier and have them involved and playing different sports. They may love tennis, but have them play basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and soccer in the fall, adding tennis in there a couple of times a week. That will give them a good balance of various types of sports. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our kids becoming very good at one sport at a very young age that we want them to become the next Roger Federer that we lose sight and they end up getting burned out. We need to teach our kids that tennis is a sport you can play for the long run.
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Add these tips to your coaching toolkit to help young athletes broaden their outlooks, enhance their emotional health, and compete with honor