For competitive athletes of any sport, muscle balance can be disturbed because of repeated and specific muscle overuse, and lack of concentrated time spent in recovery between training sessions, especially in sports that require repeated asymmetrical movements and impact and quick reaction, like field hockey. Muscle imbalances cause unequal tension of tissues surrounding the joints and induces pain, which limits a player’s ability to compete during training or competition.
Human muscles work to move bones, maintain vertical posture and stabilize some segments of the biomechanics chain to allow other segments to move. Some muscle chains perform dynamic or high strength activities over short periods of time, tire fast and need longer to recover, while other muscle chains are more static and require less oxygen and nutrients and recover faster due to lower-effort in the long term. Maintaining balance between both groups of muscles is essential to perform athletic movement with utmost precision and speed with just the right amount of energy to get the work done and in the long-term, ensure an athlete’s physical and mental longevity as they stay active as they age.
Muscle disorders are common among athletes no matter the sport. Particular to field hockey players include length discrepancies in otherwise symmetrical muscles, like the Illiopsoas or hip flexors and Quadratus Lumborum or the hip hikers. The external rotators of the shoulders can also present with asymmetrical soft tissue damage due to the characteristic style of holding the shortened hockey stick, as players maintain a dominant side-bending and hip flexion position with hands staggered high and low. The short hockey stick forces players with ball possession to maintain the balance between the lower limb joints and intervertebral joints of the spine, which is hard to do when performing from a bent-over position. Over time, the soft tissue that supports the spine on a player’s dominant side, particularly in the lower back, shortens and weakens, limiting hip extension and provoking lumbar hyper-lordosis. Scientific studies have shown that this creates low back pain and leads to structural damage and arthritis and in some athlete's knee problems. It is also worth mentioning that a taller player has to perform further flexion of the vertebral and lower limb joints to control the ball more accurately.
Dominant Side Recovery: Side-Bending, Hip Flexion and Shoulder External Rotation.
Step 1: Position the body seated and opposite to your dominant stance and stick-handling positions, using props to close off any activity from happening around both the extended and flexed knee. Change the positions of each shoulder to mimic opposite of how you normally hold your stick. Take a few concentrated and full breaths here to get as much breath into the torso as possible, keeping your shoulders level and your attention at low demand.
Step 2: Stack two blocks or use the seat of a chair to give the side of your head a resting place. Extend and rest your externally rotated arm on the inside of your flexed leg and internally rotate your opposite arm and wrap it around like a 1/2 hand-cuff allowing it to rest on the small of your back. Lean your side-body toward your flexed side and rest your head on the stack of blocks or seat of the chair. Using a blanket or towel will make this sweater. Stay for a few minutes with simple, relaxed breath and eyes closed.
Step 3: Take your internally rotated arm and bring it overhead along your top ear, dropping it softly against the side of your head to let it rest. Now, with your far side-body exposed, send your breath there to help the tissues that comprise the Quadratus Lomborum and Illisopsoas on your dominate side, expand, lengthen, relax and re-nourish. Stay for a few minutes. Exit slowly and finish with a counter, side-bend to your dominant side.
Athletes that practice without having a break for total recovery are more prone to long-lasting functional disorders that lead to structural changes which can exclude an athlete from playing for much longer that they may have planned. Coaches can play a critical role in the longevity of their athletes well beyond the time the are serve as their coach. By placing greater priority on helping their athletes understand the intention behind both stretching and relaxation techniques, coaches can help athletes maintain proper muscle balance specific to their sport and even more specific to the tactical responsibilities of each player’s position. For example, goalkeepers will have different recovery needs than forwards or mid-fielders. Exposing athletes to recovery tools like yoga can set a coach and sports program apart both not only in philosophy and vision, but in injury prevention, team cohesion and attitudes and performance results.
Relaxed Lizard Lunge (left) helps to lengthen sore tissues around the hips and low back while Legs Up the Wall (right) alleviates inflammation in tired feet and legs and provides traction and relaxation for tissues that support the spine and keep you upright and down-regulates the nervous system. Both are key restorative postures following any athletically demanding training or competition.
Athletes who truly wish to develop their sport-skills, need to look beyond simply working on the techniques of dribbling, defending, shooting and strengthening the major mover muscles of the body. Athletes and coaches who are informed and intentional about how muscles both work and recover in groups, how to maintain muscle balance, especially around the hip joints, lumbar spine and shoulders, consequently will see improvements in performance efficiency in both training and in competition. Appreciating and dedicating time for athletic recovery as integral part of the training process for your sport is the the ultimate sport-skill and will reveal itself in both short and long term results, less over-use injuries and improved ability to cope with life's challenges and greater life-long ease in the mind and body.
Low Lunge Variations are asymmetrical poses that provide active recovery for tightness and soreness around the hips and low back and can be great additions to both warm-up stretching routines or post-workout recovery programs. Using props are always a great way to provide extra cushion and support and can help take away work where you're not looking for work to happen. Spending a little extra time on the side that needs more attention is a great way to help bring balance back into the body. Keep your breath relaxed and full through your torso as you hold each position for 5-10 cycles of breath or longer if needed.
Interested in learning how yoga for athletes can complement your athletic training cycle, lessen the chance of injury and improve both your performance and longevity as an athlete? Contact me for more information on specialized classes with your team, small group or private coaching sessions.