Should teenage athletes stretch before and after sports practice?
Stretching is another important part of your child’s sports training and another area where you can have a great impact on your child’s athletic success.
Most would agree that stretching plays an important role in athletic success, but the simple act of stretching isn’t enough to guarantee positive outcomes. The correct kind of stretching can enhance performance. The incorrect kind of stretching can actually hurt your child’s performance.
Does your child understand the importance of stretching? Do they know which stretches to perform as a part of their warm-up and which stretches to perform as a part of their cool down? Does their coach teach them how to stretch by using their breath to stretch more deeply?
Our survey results suggest that your child’s sports coach might not be taking stretching seriously. We surveyed youth coaches and asked them whether or not they incorporated stretching into their training routines, and less than half of the coaches who participated in our survey reported doing so. It’s safe to assume that an even smaller amount of youth coaches are actually teaching their players the importance of stretching or how to stretch correctly.
As a parent, you can have a great impact on your child’s athletic success by learning about stretching and passing your knowledge onto your child. In this chapter, you’ll learn about the two main types of stretching (dynamic stretching and static stretching) and when your child should perform each kind. You’ll also learn some tips for stretching correctly including how long to hold each stretch and how to breathe properly to increase flexibility.
After reading, share your new knowledge with your child. If they’re serious about improving their sport, they’ll make some necessary changes in their stretching routine.
There are two main types of stretching for athletes – dynamic stretching and static stretching. These two types of stretching serve different purposes, have different benefits, and should be performed at different times during sports training. Before we discuss each type of stretching in detail, let’s take a look at the primary differences between the two.
Dynamic stretches are movement-based stretches designed to prepare the muscles for the most common movements in a sport.[i] Dynamic stretches for soccer players might include high knees, butt kicks, and an “open and close the gate” groin stretch. For swimmers, dynamic stretches might include jumping jacks, arm circles, or lunges. Click the links below for some examples of dynamic stretching routines for various sports:
Static stretches are stationary stretches where athletes hold a challenging yet comfortable position for a certain period of time.[ii] When you think of traditional stretching, chances are you think of static stretching. Touching your toes for a nice hamstring stretch or stretching your groin in butterfly pose are examples of common static stretches.
Dynamic stretching and static stretching serve different purposes and, therefore, should be performed with different objectives in mind. Research shows that dynamic stretching is better for warming up and static stretching is better for cooling down. Let’s take a look at why.
Does your child’s sports team get in a circle before their matches to stretch out their muscles? Do they move around quickly, stretching out their muscles with fluid movement? Or are they statically stretching their muscles by, for example, holding a hamstring stretch or a quad stretch?
If your child’s warm-up stretching routine consists of static stretches like touching their toes or sitting in butterfly positions, chances are high that their stretching routine is actually hurting their performance.
Research suggests that static stretching prior to exercise can actually decrease balance, reaction, and movement time during the exercise resulting in overall decreased performance.[iii] Additionally, researchers have tested the effects of static stretching prior to strength and power sports (e.g. weight-lifting, surfing, boxing), speed and agility sports (e.g. soccer, basketball, tennis), and endurance sports (e.g. long-distance running, cycling, or swimming). They found that static stretching performed as part of the warm-up hurt sports performance in all three cases.[iv] That means, no matter what sport your child plays, to perform their best, they should not be statically stretching before competitions.
Similarly, researchers have tested the effects of dynamic stretching on all three categories of sports. The results suggest that dynamic stretching before competitions actually enhances performance.[v] That means, if your child plays a sport based on strength, power, speed, or agility, they should be warming up with dynamic stretches to perform up to their full potential.
According to the Sports and Exercise Medicine Institute[vi], here’s how dynamic stretching can prepare your child’s body for competition:
- More explosive power – After a dynamic stretching session, their muscles and joints will be looser and more capable of using their body’s full range of motion for extra power.
- Better coordination and motor skills – Pre-game dynamic stretches will wake up all the muscles your child will use during the match resulting in better coordination and motor skills.
- Mental preparation – Dynamic stretches will your child transition from warming up to competing, keeping their muscles warm and their mind ready for competition.
It’s clear that dynamic stretching is an essential part of your child’s warm-up and that your child should not be statically stretching before a match or competition. While coaches often prepare warm-up exercises and stretch for their players, and you might not be able to control their team stretching routine, simply sharing this information with your child can have a great impact. It’s sure to influence the way they stretch on their own, and they might even relay the information to their coach so they can modify their team’s warm-up plans.
Cooling down with static stretching
The primary benefit of static stretching is increased range of motion (ROM) in the joints which is helpful to prevent injury and alleviate tight muscles. Let’s dive a little deeper into static stretching to learn how static stretching increases ROM, why ROM is important for injury prevention, and why it’s a good idea to statically stretch after exercising as opposed to any other time of day.
Research suggests that static stretching for between 10 and 30 seconds is effective at increasing an athlete’s ROM.[vii] Oddly enough, scientists are still unsure why that is, but more and more evidence supports the theory that deep stretches increase our tolerance for stretching. According to an article from Live Science, “Nerve endings are dispersed throughout the muscle and tendon, and if a stretch doesn’t feel safe for the muscle, those nerves will fire, registering pain and resistance.”[viii]
In the context of sport, if your child attempts to stretch their arms or legs further than they’re used to, their bodies will resist the stretch by contracting the muscles involved. This resistance is what causes injuries such as pulled hamstrings or hip flexors. Research shows that static stretching can increase flexibility in tight muscles which may prevent strains.[ix] Gradually, as the muscles demonstrate less resistance to the stretch, they are able to stretch further without injury.
Finally, it’s important to warm up before any kind of stretching to prevent injury. We’ve already discussed how static stretching as part of the pre-match or pre-practice warm-up can hurt your child’s performance. Well, post-match or practice is the perfect time to get some static stretching in. Your child’s body will be warm and flexible after a match or practice. And, as an extra bonus, stretching releases dopamine – the feel-good neurotransmitter associated with positive feelings and good sleep.[x] If you want your child to come home in a good mood and ready for a good night’s sleep, encourage them to do some static stretching after their games and practices.
Tips for static stretching
Not all static stretching is good static stretching. In fact, when done incorrectly, it can be quite dangerous for your child. Here are some guidelines for your child to follow to make sure they’re safe.
- Don’t bounce. Bouncing while stretching can lead to overstretching and strain or tear your muscles.
- Don’t overstretch. You should only stretch to the point of mild discomfort; anything that makes you wince with pain can cause injury.
- Breathe normally. Don’t hold your breath as you stretch. Breathing increasing the blood flow to the muscles improving their elasticity and allowing you to stretch more deeply.
- Hold for 10 – 30 seconds. Most experts agree that you should hold your stretch anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds for maximum results.
- Stay focused. It’s easy to get distracted while stretching. Try to maintain a focus on your breath and relaxing the muscles for maximum benefits.
- Always warm up first. Never stretch the muscles when they’re completely cold. This is why it’s a great idea to stretch post-workout.
You might be wondering what you can do with all this new information about stretching. While you might not always be around while your child is stretching with their team, the next time you are, pay attention to the way they’re stretching.
- How does the team stretch before the competition? Do they stretch dynamically or statically? They should be stretching dynamically.
- Does your child stretch statically on their own right before getting on the field or court? Suggest dynamic stretching instead.
- Does your child stretch statically around the house without warming up? Make sure they’re warming up first.
Share what you’ve learned in chapter 2 with your child or their coach. All this information about stretching is fully supported by current research.