"Load Management" seems to be a new buzzword in the sports community. It may be a hot topic because overuse injuries in youth athletes are becoming increasingly more common, and with increased coverage of professional athletes and teams that are constantly monitoring the load their bodies are under, it seems as if people are quick to assume they need to monitor load in the same way. Let's be real, a lot of people didn't start asking us this question until Lebron James started sitting out on NBA games for "Load Management" reasons, and the GPS system that monitors the US Women's National Soccer Team has been a covered feature of their training.
But we need to understand what Load (or Training Load) is and why it's being monitored in these athletes before we jump to the conclusion that we need to be doing the same thing for a young athlete.
Load is stress. Physical stress and psychological stress. This is the difficult thing about the body because it does not differentiate much between the two.
The brain is the core of the Central Nervous System (CNS), which sends "electrical" impulses to trigger muscle contractions, receives and sends sensory information, and is responsible for all of the other non-physical things we know of already (thoughts, emotions, memories, etc). Now, when we practice and play games, we place a high demand on the CNS due to the increased need for fast signals and the high sensory inputs. The more explosive, or fast twitch, the sport is the greater the demand on the CNS will be. Like a battery, the CNS has to recharge through various recovery methods.
Additionally, the brain's processing of thought, emotions, and memory also plays into the Load it experiences. Now, this is where we have to understand what the differences between kids and professionals are. It sometimes can slip our minds that professional athletes may also be Mom or Dad, a CEO of a company, and all have the same adult struggles such as bills and relationship struggles. We also forget that they may travel cross country multiple times per week and play under more frequent high stress situations. When we have more and more of these stresses our CNS takes a bigger hit. Kids, unlike professionals, don't have most of these stresses. It can almost be a summed up in a checklist of stressors that most athletes in middle school or younger won't have much on:
Do they have a cell phone?
Do they have a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse?
Do they get less than 9 hours of sleep per night?
These things are psychologically stressful, and increase the Load an athlete experiences. This can also extend into the conversation regarding recovery, travel, nutrition, and more. That's a whole different rabbit trail to follow for a different day, so let's talk about a few things that may help bring us back to some more applicable things for your own young athlete.
1. Performance Training (Speed Training/Strength and Conditioning) Helps Build Load Resilience
When a young athlete begins performance training, their body begins to adapt to the new demands it has. Especially when it comes to muscle activation, training teaches muscles to contract with smaller signals from the brain. This is called Neuromuscular Efficiency, which means the brain doesn't have to work as hard to get muscles moving! The less it has to work, the less Load it experiences.
2. Sleep Is A Kid's Greatest Load Management Tool
There's a lot of research being done currently on the effects of sleep on performance and recovery for sports. And all of it is coming back stating nearly the same thing: athletes who sleep less than 8 hours per night are at a far higher risk for injury than those who get more than that. What the research done on younger athletes (though mostly high school age) has been showing, is that the number of hours may be closer to 10 or more. That's a lot of sleep! If we're putting so much pressure on sports that they aren't getting those precious Zz's, we might run the risk of overloading.
3. Have A Set Offseason
This relates more to the psychological load placed on athletes, but we can't be burning the candle at both ends. Taking an off-season from a sport, meaning a full month or two without practices or games, can be extremely helpful in preventing overloading injuries or psychological burnout. Now, this also doesn't mean to sit around and be a couch potato. Get outside, play a completely unrelated Recreational Sport, keep up with the speed and strength training, or pick up a hobby. These things can help prevent psychological and physical overloading.
These are a just a few ways to help combat the issue of load management for kids. If you think about them, they seem like common sense: let kids be kids and don't treat them like professional athletes. The more we let them do that, the better we'll help them manage load and succeed on the court, on the field, and in life!