In a perfect world, athletes would be able to participate in their respective sport at full tilt without having to worry about hurting themselves or dealing with the consequences of an injury. But alas, the world we live in is not perfect, and injuries remain one of the most unfortunate and inescapable components of sports.
No matter how old an athlete is, the sport they play, or their fitness level or experience in that sport, there will always be some risk for getting injured. In general, the risk for acute—or traumatic—injuries increases with the amount of contact and cutting movements involved in the sport, which is why basketball and football players are injured so frequently. But a significant number of injuries result from overtraining and failing to recover properly, which is one reason injuries are seen even in sports that appear to be less dangerous, like golf, for instance.
Getting injured can have both short- and long-term consequences that need to be acknowledged. Immediately after an injury, an athlete will usually be sidelined for days or weeks, temporarily preventing them from reaping the benefits of their particular sport during that time. But when an athlete is kept from participating in their sport for several months or longer, it increases the chances of losing physical fitness and gaining weight, not to mention the psychological effects of not being able to play can have on an athlete. In the worst-case scenarios, certain severe injuries and those that are not properly rehabilitated can lead to long-term impairments and make it extremely difficult for the athlete to ever regain their pre-injury capabilities.
Together, this should make it clear just how devastating sports injuries can be in some cases and why it’s important to take steps to prevent them. Sadly, there is no surefire way to eliminate the risk for all injuries in all sports, but there are a number of universal strategies that can significantly reduce it.
Injury-prevention programs should be a primary focus for all athletes
One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk for injury is by participating in a training program specifically designed for this purpose. There are a number of sport-specific prevention programs in which athletes improve their strength, flexibility, and conditioning by focusing on the dynamic movements involved in their respective sport. A number of studies have shown that these types of injury-prevention programs are effective for lowering the risk of injury in various sports, two of which are summarized below:
- One study reviewed all the available research on exercise-based programs to reduce injury risk in tackle collision sports like American football, Australian football, and rugby. Nine studies were identified, and of these, seven supported the prevention programs as an effective method for lowering the incidence of injuries in these sports.
- The other study was also a review of research that focused on a specific exercise called the Nordic Hamstring Exercise to prevent injuries of the hamstrings, a group of three muscles in the back of the thigh. Results showed that this single exercise reduced the overall number of hamstring injuries by 51% when these participants were compared to those not performing the exercise.
Additional tips to reduce the risk for injury in sports
There are a number of other general injury-prevention tips that apply to all athletes at all levels of play, and although some may seem simple or obvious, following them can go a long way in reducing your risk for injury. These include the following:
- Avoid overtraining: take enough time to rest and let your body recover in order to avoid overuse injuries, especially if you play one sport; a good rule of thumb is to take at least one day off per week and one month off per year from training in a single sport and switch over to other sports instead during that time
- Use proper equipment: make sure that all of your gear—including pads, helmets, and other protective devices—is in good, working shape and fits properly; also be sure to wear the appropriate shoes for the appropriate sport, and replace old or worn-out shoes
- Warm up: always warm up before every practice and game/match; warm-ups should last at least 5-10 minutes and include low-level cardiovascular activities, stretching exercises, and movements that mimic those involved in your sport
- Ease into it: when returning to a sport or activity after an extended absence—or if trying it for the first time—start off gently and slowly, and gradually work your way up to more aggressive play or training
- Improve your form or technique: whatever your sport, it’s essential that you’re using a form or technique that is helping you excel rather than adding to your injury risk; if you have a coach, they will be able to help you work on this; for others, see a physical therapist for guidance on improving your form
- Don’t play overly fatigued: if you feel too tired during a game or practice, don’t push yourself and sit out to recover; many injuries occur in athletes that are overly fatigued and incapable of performing at their optimal level, which is why it’s crucial to know where this line is drawn and how to respond if it’s crossed