Written by: Stefan Rogalla B.Sc. KIN CSCS
Compensation and development in the growing athlete
The ability for adaptation in nature is what allows everything to survive, from bacteria to plants and animals, the better something can adapt, the more likely it is to succeed and prosper. This is especially true in humans and even more so in athletes. Athletes are pulled in many directions requiring their body to adapt not just to their sport but also the demands in their daily life, causing a diverse range of requirements for it to accommodate for. The result is a culmination of body mechanics striving to reach a middle ground to achieve everything required as efficiently as possible; your body is a product of what you do the most and its reflected in how your body moves! For instance, a rotational athlete (hockey, tennis, golf) will always have a preferred side of rotation, which could be helpful in some aspects but could counter and limit other activities of day-to-day life in the long term. The same can be said of someone whose work environment is improperly organized. In either case, your body will strive to compensate to find a common denominator to meet your movement demands.
Preference for motion is a major consideration of strength coaches when training for sport performance and is something that manual therapists strive to understand in order to provide proper care for their patients. You can easily imagine these demands in professional athletes, in people who have spent their lives developing to achieve the highest level of performance. But what about in youth athletes? At a first glance, the strain on the body of a youth athlete may not be as much as that of a professional athlete. However, the added component of natural growth spurts that youth athletes experience on top of training for their sport and the requirements of daily living provides extra demand on their body as it attempts to compensate in a healthy way. In addition, the nature of growth spurts creates a time sensitive component to the changes in their body influencing their growth relative to their preference of motion and compensation patterns they have developed.
The old adage of kids “bouncing back” from an injury is true but not for the reasons that most people would consider. Kids are subjected to the same injuries as adults and need to overcome those injuries just as much as their parents. The difference is that unlike their parents who have decades of mechanical strain and injuries, kids are relative blank slates who have more options available to them to compensate for their injuries. This is a major reason why healthy kids can overcome mechanical strains and injuries more effectively; a youth athlete has more options to move freely without pain compared to most adults. This allows them to compensate faster and overcome those injuries and mechanical strains more easily. But that’s not to say that a child is impervious; their ability to compensate is a direct result of the history of injury and mechanical strain they have (or have not) experienced and if their compensation patterns are not adequately addressed, there may be increased risk of injury in their future.
So what are the implications of growth spurts and the body’s adaptability through compensation? This is the curve ball that is unique to youth athletes compared to developed athletes. Adults have already grown, their bones are developed, their systems are working steadily together and have been for years. When a youth athlete hits a growth spurt, their body develops quickly (and not always symmetrically) causing uneven strains that can exaggerate issues which may have been previously compensated for. There are two general concepts to think about in regards to this idea. First, a change in millimeters at the base of a fence post will translate to centimeters or more in change at the top. Second, growth will follow the path of least resistance which is a reflection of the environment in which its growing (think of a twisted vine growing to find light). If the environment within a youth athlete’s body is stuck in a certain way through a compensation pattern or a preference of rotation for instance, their body will grow relative to those restrictions or preferences in motion. The speed at which growth spurts can take place will have a noticeable impact on the athlete’s body mechanics which relates to our fence post analogy; a small change in the base of their spine or in the posture of their lower limbs will translate to larger changes in their body elsewhere.
This process is natural and happens in everyone but there are measures that can be taken to guide the growth and development in a healthy way both limiting the risk for injury and providing an opportunity to deal with mechanical strain in the body. Manual therapy will provide a quality assessment and identify compensation patterns to help guide body mechanics and improve compensation patterns from current and previous injuries giving more options for healthy movement in youth athletes. It is important for youth athletes to check-in during growth spurts to ensure their body is able to develop unimpeded by their preferences for motion or compensations from old or lingering injuries given the speed at which structural changes take place during these periods in their lives.
For more information on our training philosophy and how we navigate dealing with growing athlete check out our athlete coaching page