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Doctors & Advice, Family Health

Lacrosse Players (and Others) Can Still Stay in Shape Amid the Pandemic

BY KATHY KATELLA July 16, 2020

A Yale sports medicine doctor shares training and injury prevention tips for athletes waiting for team sports to return.

You can do a lot of things online—but you can’t play team sports. And you can’t play competitive lacrosse, which was exploding in popularity before COVID-19 forced schools to shut down sporting events. But what you can do is stay in top physical shape and perform strengthening and conditioning exercises in anticipation of school sports coming back.   

“Professional players don’t stop training and young athletes shouldn’t either,” says Elizabeth Gardner, MD, a Yale Medicine orthopaedic surgeon and former Yale women’s lacrosse captain. More recently, she has been involved in Yale Medicine’s sponsorship of the Connecticut Hammerheads, a Major League Lacrosse professional men’s team that is launching its inaugural season this summer.

Yale Medicine orthopaedic surgeons care for young athletes who play every type of sport, and Dr. Gardner says they have seen an increase in injuries among lacrosse players that mirrors the rise of the sport, which has been growing in the United States for about a decade. While played on a field similar in size to that of soccer, lacrosse has some of the feel of ice hockey, with fast-paced shooting and passing. It’s a moderate sport as far as injuries, Dr. Gardner says—less dangerous than say, football. But injuries happen, just as they can in any sport.

Don’t stop practicing your skills

Typically, high school and college lacrosse teams compete in the spring and in summer tournaments. Of course, school sporting events across the country have been cancelled because of difficulties meeting social distancing requirements and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While in some areas of the country, a return to modified play has been allowed, “there is no doubt that we are a long way from ‘normal’ sports,” Dr. Gardner says. “So, it's difficult to advise athletes. For right now, I think the general guidelines are to remain fit and active,” she says.

That means athletes who can’t practice with their team on a field should do cardiovascular exercises such as running, biking, or swimming. “They should pay attention to the details that may seem a bit less obvious, like strength training and conditioning, hydration, and sleep. They should recognize that off-field decisions and off-field preparation impact on-field performance,” Dr. Gardner says.

As far as conditioning specific to their sport, lacrosse players can practice their lacrosse stick skills. “That’s something you can do by yourself,” Dr. Gardner says. Another especially useful exercise is “wall ball,” which she describes as basically throwing a ball back and forth against a brick wall or similar surface. “Wall ball is a good exercise for players of all skill levels, from those who are just learning how to play the game all the way up through the pros, who still practice this way,” she says.

Common lacrosse injuries

It is important to remember that you can injure yourself practicing—just like you can when you are competing, she says. Men’s and women’s lacrosse are different when it comes to risk of injury. While both play a fast, intense game that can feel like ice hockey at times, only men’s lacrosse allows body checking, which means other players can bump or poke them with either a stick or their body, so men have more requirements for padding and protective gear. “But in general, the risk profile is pretty similar to the typical field injuries you would see in football and in soccer,” Dr. Gardner says. Women are at higher risk for certain injuries than men because of their different anatomy (women athletes are two to eight times more likely than men to tear their anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, one of the major ligaments in the knee).

The Connecticut Hammerheads have formed a strategic partnership with Yale Medicine, which will serve as the Hammerheads' jersey partner in 2020 and also support the team with medical services.

Fortunately, most lacrosse injuries are not critical—they include muscle strains, sprains, and bruises; overuse injuries like shin splints; and minor ankle and knee injuries, and they’re often easily treated with rest, ice, and elevation. It’s always important to consult a doctor for a concussion.

Yale Medicine surgeons have provided surgical and nonsurgical care for the most serious musculoskeletal injuries, including ACL tears and shoulder injuries like acromioclavicular (AC) joint injuries, which affect the top of the shoulder. “ACL tears are the leading cause of what we call ‘time loss injury’—injuries that really make you miss a game or practice,” Dr. Gardner says.

Injury prevention is key

But the best medicine for any injury is prevention, says Dr. Gardner. A key piece of advice she gives players is to wear shoes that are appropriate for their feet and for the surface they are playing on, whether they are practicing or competing in a game. “I think it's underestimated just how vital that is,” she says. “Think about all of the force that goes into the foot hitting the ground, especially when a strong athlete is pushing off, dodging, cutting, and moving. An athlete may have flat feet, and when their foot hits the ground in that position, it can change how the stress goes up the leg through the shins, to the knee, to the hip, and into the back.”

When she sees a patient with a chronic overuse injury such as shin splints, knee issues, or low back pain, one of the first things she checks is the quality and fit of their shoes to assess whether they need a better shoe or support from an orthotic.

Dr. Gardner also tells patients to avoid overtraining, doing a certain activity repeatedly, and practicing a single sport year-round. “We know our bodies adapt very well, but if we spend too much time on one set of muscles, other things fall to the wayside,” she says.

The point isn’t that athletes should stop training until their sports resume, but that they should take breaks just as they would during a normal season, she says. “It's important, definitely both mentally as well as physically, to give yourself a break. That gives your body a chance to fully repair itself and your brain a chance to rest and remember why you're doing what you're doing," she says. "You want to make sure you're still practicing and playing for the right reasons and for the love of the game. Ultimately, all of this will improve your performance.”