Contributed by: Brent Hall
Athletic Therapist, Certified Exercise Physiologist and founding member of Momentum Volley.
Brent is also the Head Coach of the Camosun Chargers Women’s Volleyball program, an NCCP Performance Coach, has led Team BC programs, and is currently enrolled in the Coaching Association of Canada’s Advanced Coaching Diploma program.
In running, 75% of injuries are the result of training errors, not potholes, tree roots, or bad luck. A similar trend can be seen in volleyball, where many injuries are avoidable. It comes down to starting small and progressing slowly. Doing too much too soon, especially in a year where some may have spent the past 9 months on the couch, exceeds the body’s ability to adapt. As we navigate returning athletes to play after a long break, I hope we can keep some simple concepts in mind that will help keep kids on the court and off the sidelines.
Goal: prevent acute (sudden) and chronic (overuse) injuries so athletes can enjoy participating at every practice.
Acute injuries are more probable in athletes who play in the front row as they have to tolerate high forces when landing from jumps (sometimes in awkward positions) and because they occasionally come into contact with other athletes. The risk of injury further increases when athletes are fatigued. Measures to prevent acute injuries should revolve around avoiding extreme fatigue and contact with other athletes.
Chronic injuries are more probable when athletes are subjected to training volumes that greatly exceed their current level of fitness. Repeated exposure to the high forces that occur when landing from jumps is a major factor. Incremental increases in training volume allow the body to adapt. This area is of particular concern in the current situation, where many athletes will be the least physically prepared they’ve ever been.
To avoid ACUTE Injuries:
Since a lot of injuries occur when one athlete comes into contact with another, usually by landing on their feet under the net, avoiding these situations is critical. In the Camosun Chargers program we have a rule that touching the centre line with any part of your foot results in an immediate loss of point and end of rally. I get a lot of eye rolls early on but athletes come to understand the purpose behind it and eventually embrace it. At first it led to a lot of stoppages of play when a ball was set tight. But competitive athletes quickly learn how to work within the rules and, in this case, to safely attack tight sets. More important, since implementing it, we have had zero contact-related ankle injuries. I would like to advocate for all teams and clubs to adopt this rule; I believe it creates a safer environment for the athletes and leads to better attacking skill development.
The question of fatigue is probably more related to the conversation around chronic injuries, but I want to note that drills that induce a high level of fatigue should account for decreased coordination by simplifying the task. For example, if your goal is to help athletes improve their endurance it may be better to have them do a series of exercises on their own (away from others and without a ball) rather than as a part of a dynamic, game-like drill.
It probably goes without saying is that a proper warm up can go a long way to avoid injuries. Having athletes start slow and gradually increase their speed and intensity will allow their muscles and joints to physically warm up and become more pliable. Importantly, a good warm up also primes their nervous systems for being precise when controlling the position of joints. Like any other skill, landing from a jump might not be done well on the first attempt, so gradually working toward full intensity will help remind the body what’s coming.
To avoid CHRONIC injuries:
It all comes down to the athlete’s training volume relative to their preparedness (fitness). More than ever, starting conservatively is a good measure right now. Counting (or predicting) the number of jumps that athletes will do in a practice is a good way to measure training volume. Jumping is the most intense movement in the sport and therefore is the most demanding on the body’s tissues. It relates directly to the lower body, but also relates to the rest of the body because if you’re not jumping, you’re not swinging (for the most part – special consideration should be given to athletes with a history of shoulder injuries).
40-50 jumps, distributed over the course of a practice, is probably a safe amount to start with, assuming there’s a day of rest in between practices and your team is training no more than 3 times per week to start with. Adding about 5 jumps per practice, per week means you’ll be progressing by about 10% per week, which should be tolerable. Working your way up over time to about 80-85 jumps is probably good, and many athletes will be able to tolerate more as time goes on. The 80-85 benchmark is the point at which you might be able to say the athletes are about as prepared to play as they would be in a regular season.
Something else to consider is that not every jump is created equal. A setter hopping to jump set is lower impact than a leftside max jumping to hit a high ball. Having an understanding of the intensity of the jumps can help you fudge that 40-50 number up or down – setters can probably handle more, leftsides might want to keep it at a firm 40. Middles will jump the most out of any position when they are playing, so they can accumulate jumps quickly, depending on the drill. And if you’re getting into game-like drills in training, watch your setters’ tendencies – their go-to attackers might be getting a lot more jumps in than your weaker attackers, especially if they’re being set in the back row.
Asking the athletes what they’ve been up to over the last month might help you with some decision making as well, but the likely story is that you will have a wide variety of fitness levels on your team. You can expect your athletes to have sore muscles after the first few practices, but it should dissipate before the next session. Younger athletes are pretty good at self-limiting and may not attend at all if they’re hurting. But most athletes learn at some point that they can play through a certain amount of pain or discomfort; for better or for worse.
An attentive eye will help you discern between athletes that are a bit fatigued and those that are dealing with injuries. Lingering pain in a specific area is the beginning of a chronic injury. That said, while fatigue is a warning sign for overdoing it and a precursor to injury in some cases, there’s a time and a place to encourage athletes to work through some discomfort. But athletes should only train through pain with direct recommendations from a healthcare practitioner of some kind. Athletes who are noticeably playing with altered movement should not perform the skills that cause them to experience pain. Recommending they see their doctor, or a physio/AT/chiro/anyone-who-knows-about-the-body will help them understand their injury and how to work around it while it heals.
Particularly for the 15+ age groups, monitoring them on an ongoing basis may become important; by these ages many athletes will allow their motivation to interfere with good long-term decision making. Often, resting a bit now means playing more in the long run. But even though they may understand that conceptually, it’s often difficult for athletes to self-limit. Asking questions at the start of practice might help identify athletes that should modify their participation. How ready to train do you feel? How much energy do you have? Are you sore? Where? Are you tired? Do you think you should play back row only today? These are all valid questions that serve to open a conversation up. Creating a team environment where it’s ok to request doing less than the rest of the group is important (and I think you’ll know if someone is just being lazy).
The last thing I want to address is that we should all avoid the temptation to “get them fit”. Putting athletes through intense training when they are not prepared for it increases the risk of injury. That said, encouraging athletes to take on a little extra training outside of volleyball practice can be great. I would just say that they should wait at least 2 weeks, and probably more like 4, after starting up with volleyball practices before starting a weight program. And I would strongly recommend not adding any plyometrics (jump training) until after the 8 week mark, at which point they should only do a little bit. Plyometrics are best done out of season.
Some notes on RECOVERY:
Recovering well from training can help reduce the impact of accumulated training session to session. There’s a lot of buzz around recovery and everyone and their dog has invented some kind of modality or tool for improving recovery. But as far as I can tell there are only a couple things that matter a lot: sleep, downtime, and eating well.
Athletes’ bodies have the ability to regenerate muscles and other tissues when sleeping, so they will probably need lots of it to recover from the physical toll that sports take. That one is pretty obvious.
Taking downtime away from the phone or really any stimulus can serve as a reset for the nervous system; constant stimulus (from our phones, among other things) keeps the body in a state of arousal and never fully lets it relax. If you took biology in high school you might have come across the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, better known as rest-and-digest and fight-or-flight. It’s in the name: rest (and digest) is needed for recovery.
Eating well often means eating enough, eating enough protein, and keeping an eye on iron levels. I won’t go any farther down that deeeep rabbit hole.
- Start small – 40-50 jumps per practice
- Progress slowly – 10% per week (about 5 jumps per practice)
- Consider the centre line rule to avoid contact between athletes
- Keep tabs on your athletes pain, soreness, and energy levels
- Encourage good recovery habits – eat, rest, sleep