Challenging Times for Teen Athletes, but Safe Return on the Horizon

Isolation and lack of social contact are the side effects of coronavirus prevention practices. These conditions have triggered an increase in anxiety and depression across our population.

The impact of isolation on teenagers—and especially teen athletes—has been alarming. Suicide among adolescents and visits to emergency rooms for mental health help have increased nationwide.

“Teenagers are social beings. They thrive on relationships and being with friends,” says Stanford Children’s Health pediatric primary care sports medicine specialist Erin Moix Grieb, MD, who also sees orthopedic patients on the East Bay as part of our partnership with John Muir Health.

But teenage athletes are faced with multiple blows, notes Dr. Grieb. “In addition to loss of socialization opportunities, they can’t participate in sports, be with their teammates, or develop their athletic skills. And by taking away sports, they lose the innate anti-anxiety benefit that all physical activity provides.”

Slow return to sports starting up

Fortunately, many school districts have received the go-ahead for their students to start practicing sports again. This should go a long way toward alleviating the isolation that kids have been experiencing.

“This is definitely good news,” comments Dr. Grieb. “But it is not the time to throw caution to the wind. All the keeping-safe tactics we’ve been practicing for the past year must continue as we move toward the lifting of some restrictions.” The big three of those restrictions are:

1. Wear a mask.

2. Wash hands frequently.

3. Maintain a six-foot distance from other people whenever possible.

And now more than ever, teen athletes need to rely on their teammates to practice and model these safety precautions. “If one person on a team tests positive for COVID-19, the whole team is affected,” says Dr. Grieb. “If a team member sees someone straying from safe behaviors, it’s up to them to alert and encourage that person to put on their mask, wash their hands, or keep a safe distance.”

Return safely

“Phasing back into sports could bring up different feelings from those experienced during isolation,” says Emily Kraus, MD, Stanford Children’s Health pediatric primary care sports medicine specialist. “Athletes may be anxious about their skill level following a long period of limited physical activity and lack of practice. They may have put themselves on dietary restrictions in an effort to maintain the body image they view as ideal for their sport.”

As a result, athletes may have gone through a change in body composition during months of limited activity. A loss in strength may be accompanied by diminished cardiovascular fitness.

Dr. Kraus cautions athletes and coaches to go slowly in the return to sports. Overexercising or food restriction to recoup lost time is dangerous and may predispose an athlete to injuries that can be avoided by a slow and measured return to fitness.

To avoid overuse injuries when returning to sports, Dr. Kraus recommends a stepwise approach:

  • Go slow on the return, with a weekly increase of no more than 10 percent of activity over several weeks’ time.
  • Incorporate multiple types of exercise into training, such as strength, balance, agility, flexibility, and plyometrics.
  • Encourage rest and recovery days with at least one day off per week.
  • Modify food and water consumption as needed based on the training climate.
  • Make sure that teen athletes get enough sleep to reduce risk of injury or illness.

See this article for more tips about starting up with sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to sports provides another reason for coaches to reach out to their athletes to see how they’re doing and to reassure them that they have the support they need.

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