It’s the end of probably one of the most unusual volleyball seasons.
There was no volleyball, then suddenly a whole lot of volleyball.
Many players rapidly went from long periods off the court to a schedule packed full of practices and games. With high school and club seasons running in parallel, playing with more than one team was quite commonplace. Two practices a day, playing 7 days a week, and even competing in other sports besides volleyball were all also a form of the “new normal.”
This rapid transition was not kind to the health of many players. Shoulders, knees, backs, and shins often broke down during the heavier periods of training and competitions.
As pediatric and sports medicine specialists, we were not alone in seeing a lot of tired athletes coming in with overuse injuries. They had not been able to properly prepare beforehand for those high amounts of practices and games.
The common denominator for much of those breakdown injuries? Relatively weak and deconditioned lower bodies.
— These deconditioned lower bodies include legs that could not sustain proper jump progressions, had trouble chasing balls out of system, and could not react as quickly to changes between offense and defense.
— Shoulder support muscles were overwhelmed because players could not consistently develop enough jump force or be in optimal positions for attacks and serves.
— Setters who are not in proper position often must awkwardly bend or straighten their backs to compensate.
— Fatigued blockers and hitters tend to land with inward collapse of the knees and ankles, and some of those landings may last for an extended period.
As the summer months begin, we anticipate that upcoming club and high school seasons will be more “traditional.” This separation should help reduce the some of the overload burdens on younger players. However, we would not just lean on this “reduction of overlap” as the only injury prevention strategy.
If we could propose one area of true focus over the summer months, it would be an emphasis on building strength and coordination in jumping, landing, and transitions.
Players assume the more they play, the stronger they get. They think that the only way to overcome a fatigued and weak shoulder is to do more hits, serves, and blocks. We would suggest the opposite. The more athletes play, the more they break down, and if athletes don’t have a solid foundation of strength in the lower legs, the entire body will break down.
In today’s youth sports world, the athlete’s muscles never get a chance to fully recover. As the body fatigues during play, proper mechanics begin to break down, opening a greater opportunity for injury. An individualized strength and conditioning program are going to be a key component as we head into the “return to more normal” mode of youth sports.
Lower body strength and conditioning, including jump training, can help players play better deep into matches or during a long week of practice.
Jump training can also reduce the risk of injuries especially to the knee and ankles as well as the upper body. Lower body conditioning can enhance performance. A stronger hitter can be more consistent with positions, approaches, and accuracy/strength of attacks.
A proper strength and conditioning program with a focus on the lower body will be modified throughout the year beginning with addressing pre-season needs to prepare for the season.
This is exactly what we propose should start over the upcoming summer months.
While we acknowledge that most players do not get (or plan on getting) an off-season, taking the proper time to address strength, power, and conditioning will allow players to make necessary gains to prepare for healthier and more effective on-court play.
To maximize outcomes and reduce injury, any formal training (like any strength or focused skill acquisition program) needs to have a dedicated time to coordinate with other volleyball/athletic demands. It is best to introduce the program, optimize regular participation for 6-8 weeks, and then measure the results.
Of course, a continual emphasis on proper jumping and landing technique is essential. There is no reason to reinforce bad habits with training or increase the risk of hurting players. Strength and conditioning should only reduce injuries. It is unacceptable to watch players get hurt in the weight room or due to a poorly designed program.
This type of training is not a one size fits all concept. Unique programs should be created for each player. Progress should be closely monitored and assessed.
This program can be adjusted once in-season to address different stressors like tournaments and crossover of high school and club seasons. Even in-season, players should not ignore strength and stability training to remain healthy and improve on certain aspects of volleyball play.
For a player looking to overcome the fatigue of the last season and best prepare for the next schedule of matches, look not at just more volleyball. Look at ways to get stronger as an athlete and then as a volleyball player.
Remember; stronger athletes can become more resilient. Practices get better since bodies can handle more stress. Strength and jump training can help generate more force at a faster rate, improving jump height, quickness, and arm swing power. Deceleration training allows more efficient handling of the barrage of forces bodies must absorb which reduces injuries during landings and transitions.
A better conditioned athlete will perform better on the court while being more resilient to injuries.
(Related: Dr. Koutures’s article on VolleyballMag.com on incorporating jump training in volleyball players)