By Marta Lawrence
Experts say that new student-athletes and those coming back to campus after a break may need an opportunity to acclimate and that coaches and strength and conditioning professionals should take that into consideration when devising their off-season and preseason plans.
Connecticut's director of sports medicine Jeffrey Anderson.
Experts recommend using the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook’s chapter “The Student-Athlete with Sickle Cell Trait” to guide early practice sessions.
Allow student-athletes to set their own pace.
Engage in a slow and gradual preseason conditioning regimen to be prepared for sports-specific performance testing and the rigors of competitive intercollegiate athletics.
Build up slowly while training (for example, paced progressions).
Use adequate rest and recovery between repetitions, especially during “gassers” and intense station or “mat” drills.
Do not urge student-athletes to perform all-out exertion of any kind beyond two to three minutes without a breather.
Be excused from performance tests such as serial sprints or timed mile runs, especially if those are not normal sport activities.
Stop activity immediately when student-athletes struggle or experience symptoms such as muscle pain, abnormal weakness, undue fatigue or breathlessness.
Keep student-athletes well hydrated at all times, especially in hot and humid conditions.
Maintain proper asthma management.
Student-athletes should refrain from extreme exercise during acute illness or while experiencing a fever.
Supplemental oxygen at altitude should be accessed as needed.
Seek prompt medical care when student-athletes experience unusual distress.
Football may be at a higher risk than other sports, said Jeffrey Anderson, director of sports medicine at Connecticut. Anderson said football athletes are pushed for most of the year and have a tendency to take advantage of the downtime. “So, they come back and they’re de-conditioned to some degree,” he said.
The NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook notes that student-athletes should be protected from premature exposure to the full rigors of sports. Guideline 1a says that preseason conditioning should provide the student-athlete with optimal readiness by the first practice.
The methods that strength and conditioning professionals use to prepare for that first official practice vary widely, however, and when workouts fail to provide adequate time for acclimating to new physical demands, student-athlete well-being could be compromised.
Since 2000, college football has experienced 21 indirect sudden deaths, with 55 percent occurring on the first or second day of a new practice period. Football has incurred more sudden deaths than any other sport, with the most occurring as the result of a conditioning session. While the cause of death has varied in each situation, the numbers suggest a particular vulnerability as student-athletes begin regular workouts after time off.
Although many programs provide their athletes with exercise routines to keep them in shape during breaks, Monmouth head athletic trainer Doug Padron said “do-it-yourself” workouts always fall a little short. “Even if they’ve been working out on their own,” he said, “they’re not going to be able to put themselves in the position to work out at the intensity level and the competitiveness that the (training) environment creates.”
Anderson said that means an obligation for those in charge.
Monmouth's head athletic trainer Doug Padron.
“We need to take the responsibility as grown-ups in this situation to make sure that we’re providing them with the optimal environment,” he said.
That’s why Marshall’s head strength coach Scott Bennett takes a conservative approach in his training regimen, preferring to look at a long-term fitness and conditioning goal rather than focusing on a single day’s session. “I don’t have to win the race today,” he said.
The safest approach after a break is to phase in the strength and conditioning program. Anderson and Padron, both members of the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, agree that starting practice at about 50 percent of the typical intensity and output level is a good guideline.
Football has addressed preseason conditions by requiring a five-day acclimatization period. No other fall sports have that type of requirement, although the competitive-safeguards committee recommends at least a three-day acclimatization period for both first-time participants and continuing student-athletes.
Research conducted by the NCAA and other groups recognizes that student-athletes have unique responses to the stressors of exercise and recovery. The most important variable that is often overlooked is the recovery that is provided to allow the body to overcome those stressors.
Although rules govern when off-season conditioning can be conducted, there are no formal rules that require acclimatization and recovery time during these practice opportunities. Padron suggests there could be a need for more explicit guidelines. “A gradual return is needed,” he said, “and is something we should look at to see if we should mandate it.”
Recognizing the need for further dialogue on the topic, the NCAA is developing a multi-disciplinary, sport-performance expert working group with the goal of promoting student-athlete development models that are scientific and sport-specific. The group will include strength and conditioning professionals, athletic trainers, physicians, dietitians, sport coaches, sports psychologists and exercise physiologists.
Marshall’s head strength coach Scott Bennett.
In the meantime, Anderson and Padron suggest using sickle cell guidelines available in the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook to guide off-season workouts for all sports. The recommendations include encouraging a self-paced workout, a slow and gradual preseason conditioning regimen, and adequate recovery opportunity.
The guidelines also encourage coaches to pay attention to warning signs that an exercise routine might be too much for the athlete to handle. Urging student-athletes to exercise beyond their fitness level is not only dangerous, it can limit the gains they make.
“When someone is on their hands and knees, there’s no point in pushing them because the benefit is more detrimental than beneficial,” said Sourav Poddar, associate professor and primary care sports medicine director at Colorado.
There is a mentality issue at play, too, the experts suggest.
When workouts are conducted to develop mental toughness through unusually strenuous exercise or as punishment drills, dangerous scenarios could result. “You can’t build mental toughness,” said Hoffman. “If you want a mentally tough athlete, recruit a mentally tough athlete.”
“Not all athletes that can’t go on are weak,” Anderson said.
Ultimately, knowing when to back an athlete down and let him rest is “just good horse sense,” Bennett said.
Professionals developing and implementing workouts also should be aware of any medical conditions or supplements a student-athlete is taking.
Medical exams are required for all divisions, and Division I further mandates sickle cell trait testing for its athletes if their status is unknown (the student-athlete can opt out of testing but must sign a written release). However, being aware of student-athletes’ current medical status can be especially tricky when they come back to campus because they may have engaged in behavior while on break that could put them at risk during intensive workouts.
“You just don’t know what they’ve done when nobody is watching,” said Bennett.
Bennett, a member of the board of directors of the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, highly recommends that universities hire only certified strength and conditioning coaches. That list is available through his group or others.
Jay R. Hoffman, professor at Central Florida and president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, agrees and also recommends that institutions require strength and conditioning coaches to be housed outside of the sports they support.
Football programs, in particular, often allow strength and conditioning coaches to report directly to the head coach. That could create a conflict of interest, Padron said.
While Padron agrees that separating the strength coach from the football staff might be ideal, the ultimate question is one of professional integrity and communication. He said the head coach, athletic trainer and strength coach should communicate with each other to best support the needs of each individual student-athlete.
“By communicating with each other and developing an appropriate relationship of all three of those entities, you have a program for the student-athletes that is safe and they can achieve the goals the staff are shooting for,” Padron said.