Meet Wellness Crusader Michael Anderson. He is an Athletic Trainer with over 20 years in the field. His credentials aren’t what makes him a Wellness Crusader—it is his passion to treat AND educate student-athletes. Here is Michael’s awesome advice for any athlete or aspiring athlete about how to maintain a healthy body and prevent injury:
PK: What sparked your interest to become an athletic trainer?
MA: I became interested in athletic training while playing soccer at Fullerton JC and spending time in the athletic training room for a sprained ankle. I later transferred to Cal Poly Pomona to finish my collegiate soccer career and join the athletic training education program. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis on athletic training. After working in a couple of different high schools for a few years, I decided to return to school for my master’s degree. I enrolled in the graduate program at Chico State, and obtained my degree in Kinesiology, emphasizing athletic training education. Following my master’s degree, I interned with the San Francisco 49ers for the summer, worked at a highly-competitive boys’ Catholic school for three years, and for the past ten years worked at Cal Poly Pomona.
PK: What are some injury prevention tips you would give to a young athlete?
MA: My number one suggestion for young athletes and their parents would be: DO NOT specialize in a sport. As a collegiate athletic trainer for the past ten years, I have seen a decrease over the years of well-rounded athletes. Specializing in a specific sport means that an athlete continuously repeats the same movements which strengthen a specific set of muscles. This creates muscle imbalances and undue joint stress. Think in terms of the shoulder and a baseball pitcher—if all the young athlete is doing is pitching, he builds up the muscles (pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, etc.) that pull the arm and the shoulder forward. When these muscles get strong, overactive, and short, the muscles on the back of the shoulder (trapezius, posterior deltoid, etc.) get long, underactive, and weak. With this strength imbalance, the shoulder joint and the shoulder girdle are also shifted forward which changes the way the stresses are applied at the joint. These types of changes are the leading cause of “overuse” injuries that we see far too often. Shoulder strength imbalances can cause rotator cuff tears, labral tears, and early arthritis. Lower extremity strength imbalances can cause hamstring, quadricep, or groin strains, patella (knee cap) tracking issues, and other knee pain. Hip muscle imbalances, which I think is one of the most overlooked issues in young athletes, can cause groin strains, low back strain, and lumbar disc degeneration. Arguably, hip muscle imbalances can also lead to ACL tears in the knee.
So, how does the young athlete avoid these types of muscle strength imbalances and their relative overuse injuries? My answer: cross training! Play other sports that utilize other movements and other muscle groups, ideally the antagonist muscles that do the opposite of the primary muscles used in the specialized sport. A pitcher, as in the previous example, should find a sport that works the muscles on the back of the shoulder in pulling type motions, such as archery, rowing in crew or kayaking, or a backhand in tennis. Other sports such as soccer or sprinting events in track would build leg strength, which if asking any quality pitching coach is important to the kinetic chain and where pitch speed and endurance comes from, and often overlooked by youth coaches. Yoga or Pilates are also great cross-training platforms to build overall body strength and maintain long, lean muscles and healthy balanced joint strength.
Overall, young athletes should strive to be good athletes with balanced athletic bodies. In my experience, athletes that specialize in specific sports or positions create muscle imbalances and non-optimal joint motions, which at lower levels the athlete might be able to excel. However, as the athlete progresses to higher level athletics and more is required of them, the athlete matures, gets stronger, the movements get faster, and more force is applied to tissues in and around the joint. This is where we see the overuse injuries occur, and by the time they reach college or university level, it is difficult if not impossible to make therapeutic changes and tissue changes that can limit a career have already occurred, such as articular cartilage wear and degeneration, muscle, tendon, or ligament wear and tears.
PK: What are some recovery tips that you would recommend for young athletes?
MA: My best analogy for athletes I have worked with is that of their bodies and a race car. In a car that you drive to work or school daily, you can get away with not changing the oil, not checking tire pressure and tread, not getting a tune-up regularly, or not being concerned with the type of fuel you put in the car. With all of these indifferences, your car will probably still get you to and from work or school. However, if you take that same car and race it on a track at over 100mph five to six days a week, it probably would not last a single day. This is why elite race car teams spend millions of dollars to hire rocket scientists and the smartest graduates from the best engineering schools to be pit crew… yes, all those guys jumping on cars in the pit during races are some of the smartest (and fittest) individuals you could ever meet! They are hired because the smallest of changes to a spoiler, the choice of tire to use, or when to fuel, can mean the difference of winning or losing a race by 12 inches at 200 mph.
I tell athletes I work with at the university level that they are now elite athletes, like race cars. As elite athletes, they need to treat their bodies as elite race car teams treat their cars. The type of food you eat, how you hydrate, and the amount of sleep you get dramatically reflects in your athletic performance. The amount of joint/muscle strength balance you create with regular, quality stretching and strength training not only reflects in your athletic performance but also can regulate the length of your athletic career by reducing injury.
Young athletes can take this advice to heart as well. If you have the ambition to play college sports at the highest level of professional sports, you should act like an elite athlete and treat your body accordingly in healthy ways. The earlier you start this, the better and healthier your body becomes and the more prepared you are for quality performance that coaches like.
PK: In what ways should student-athletes educate themselves concerning their bodies and overall wellness?
MA: I have seen quite a few athletes that excel in their sport at the high school level by their talent alone, but when they reach the college level they break down with overuse injuries, mentally can’t handle the physical workload, or can’t compete with other athletes that have done the work and taken care of their bodies. As I stated previously, just like a race car, there are so many factors that affect the body and its athletic performance. I would argue that most student athletes overlook many if not all of these factors. As an example, while at Cal Poly we regularly had athletes complain in the first week of two-a-day practices about not having energy at practice, having muscle soreness, or not feeling like they were recovering between practices well. We started tracking the nutritional intake for one team and found that 80% of the team was trying to get through the rigorous load of two practices a day and weight lifting every other day with only 800 to 1500 calories eaten each day. As soon as we educated these athletes and got them on a diet of 2500 to 3500 quality calories (cutting out the processed sugars and other empty calories) the vast majority of the aches, pains, and weakness during practices disappeared.
If a student athlete really wants to compete, be the best that they can be, and especially if they have dreams of playing at the professional level, they need to act like an elite athlete and treat their bodies as such. Consult their athletic trainer to find out what they can do to improve their condition. If they don’t have access to an athletic trainer, consult a doctor or consult a nutritionist. There are lots of books by professional athletes that explain how they succeeded at their sport. Ultimately, athletes should use the recourses around them to educate themselves on how elite athletes do what they do, mimic those elite athletes, and treat their body like the fine-tuned race car. It is their tool to create the best athletic performance they possibly can.
PK: How critical do you think education is in your field?
MA: With all that we know about the human body, we have just scratched the surface of understanding how it works. We are learning new things every day. It is imperative that anyone in the health care field stay abreast of new research findings regularly. We make changes in how we treat different injuries all the time based on what best evidence is presented with the most recent research. Student athletes and young athletes can benefit from that knowledge by utilizing their athletic trainers.
PK: What are some common misconceptions that people have about your profession?
MA: Because of the name “athletic trainer,” many people confuse us with the personal trainers in the gym, or soccer team “trainer”. An athletic trainer is a much more medically-based education and rigorous certification, than a personal trainer in the gym. Also, there is no similarity with the soccer coach some people call “trainer”.
To learn more from Michael Anderson, ATC:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Michael Anderson” in the subject line.