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Get Back in the Game: 10 Tips for a Safe Return After a Season Off

Even the most dedicated athlete must take a break occasionally. Whether due to illness, injury, or scheduling conflicts, it’s perfectly natural to take a season off. But after a pause, especially like many of us have taken in the past year, how do you get back in the game?

If you’re the parent of a student-athlete, a sports comeback can be especially concerning. You see your kid start pursuing a sport after the summer or a semester of little physical activity, and you know they might be setting themselves up for an injury. Often athletes assume they can return to their previous fitness levels right away, which can leave them exhausted, frustrated, and even re-injured if they’re still recovering.

So how do you take a smarter approach when you get back in the game? Here are 10 tips for sports conditioning and a safe return after a season off.

1. Get the “All Clear” to Get Back in the Game

If you’re recovering from an injury, the most important guideline is to always listen to the advice of your physical therapist. At the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, our team of physical therapists is highly trained and experienced with the physical requirements of sports and sports conditioning. They will know exactly how to get you back in the game quickly while keeping your injury at bay.

Recovery after a sports-related injury (like an ACL tear) is a slow process, but physical therapy professionals understand the frustration and are often athletes themselves. They will offer sound advice and a recovery protocol to help players build back quickly, efficiently, and safely. Wait to get the go-ahead from your practitioner before you resume play.

2. Start Slow but Steady

When returning to sports after a season off, start slow and steady. Cross-train to build supportive muscles and engage in activities like yoga to help improve your flexibility. It may be tempting to save all your energy for your preferred sport, but you’ll build those important muscle groups that you need during play by varying your routine.

Engage in regular exercise—a little each day—and build up to your pre-break levels of fitness. Don’t expect a full recovery and a complete return right away. It can take time and persistence to get back in top form. At the same time, although your skills may feel “rusty,” they usually return quite quickly with a regular practice regimen.

3. Prioritize Proper Rest and Nutrition

Even if you aren’t recovering from an injury but just building back after a break, you must get plenty of rest and nutrition. Bodies need rest to recover from activity. As you engage in exercise, you’re often making micro-tears in your muscles. As those tears heal, more muscle is “built” and strengthened. The muscle-building process requires energy and fuel in the form of sleep and nutrition.

If you’re the parent of a student-athlete, who’s returning to sports after a break, encourage them to eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Guide them to prioritize sleep and rest. Young athletes, especially growing teenagers, need plenty of calories and 8-10 hours of sleep to recover fully.

4. Always Wear Proper Gear

No matter the sport or activity, one of the best ways to prevent injury is to make sure you’re always wearing proper gear. For most athletes, proper attire includes safety equipment like helmets, knee pads, wrist guards, shin protectors, and mouthguards. If you’re getting back in the game after a break, it is worth the investment to have gear resized. Proper fit is especially critical for student-athletes, who grow and change quickly.

Of all the essential exercise equipment, good footwear ranks high. Supportive, correctly fitting shoes are a requirement for nearly every physical endeavor. Don’t skimp when it comes to the right shoes, with traction and structure to play. One misstep can sideline you for another season, so take every precaution.

5. Warm-Up Before Activity

Before play, take the time to warm up. Researchers are still exploring the physical merits of stretching and warming up. Some say it’s a vital part of sports, while others say the human body is primed to exercise right away (but it doesn’t hurt to start with gentle warm-ups). But the mental benefits of warming up can help you play better and get into the right mode for performance.

When an athlete warms up and does light stretching, they get their heart pumping and connect with their body. During warm-up, it’s time to note any spots that feel stiff or “off.” An athlete should pay attention to a slight twinge or a strain and even consult with sports medicine professionals on the sidelines before they start playing to ensure they’re getting any extra care and protection they need to stay safe.

6. Hydrate During The Game

Water is critical for health. Our bodies are 60% water, and it helps move electrolytes, vitamins, and nutrients throughout the body. When we sweat, those crucial components are lost, and we must rehydrate. Gatorade and sports drinks can offer a little sugar-boost during performance, but plain water is vital.

Encourage kids to carry a water bottle with them and keep it on the sidelines. If they’re getting back to sports after a season off, it may take some time to get their rhythm and recognize when dehydration is coming on. Younger athletes may find it useful to set a timer or get a reminder to drink up when they hit the bench!

7. Take Breaks Regularly

When athletes get back in the game, they may avoid taking breaks, especially if they’re trying to “prove” their abilities and resume their previous performance levels. It’s important to realize that breaks are necessary for every athlete—even professionals!

When an athlete takes a few minutes at the sideline or on the bench, they can clear their head and assess how they’re feeling. The adrenaline and excitement from play come down a little, and they may notice discomfort, which they can address before going back in. These short breaks help athletes check in with their bodies and make sure they aren’t pushing through an injury.

8. Listen to Your Coach

Players should always listen to their coaches. Coaches help train athletes on the proper form, the rules of the game, and the steps to improve performance. When athletes are playing any sport, they should listen to and follow all their coach’s instructions.

Listening to the coach might be a struggle for some players. If your coach says you need a break or you need to work on your approach, avoid the tendency to get defensive or defiant. The best way to improve performance is to realize your coach wants to help you do your best. Follow the instructions of your coach during practice and during game time. It will keep you safe from harm.

9. Be Mindful of Your Body

Athletics is all about the mind-body connection. Professional athletes know that the mental requirements of sports are often as rigorous and challenging as physical performance. When you get back in the game after a long winter, a season off or a break, listening to your body is crucial.

How do athletes listen to their bodies? By learning mindfulness. Using guided meditation apps like Headspace (which has sports performance courses) can help athletes get in the right frame of mind. Not only can mindfulness improve performance, but it can improve safety, ease nerves, and strengthen skills (like focus and memory).

10. Keep Your Expectations in Check

The most important thing for athletes to remember when they get back in the game is that reality might not always meet expectations—and that’s totally okay. Athletes are often driven and competitive. These qualities help them perform at the highest level. But those same qualities can also lead them to be tough on themselves when they can’t achieve as they used to.

Give it time and pace yourself as you start to come back. Expect that it may take several weeks or even months before you feel like you’ve resumed “regular” play. It’s natural for your body to need time to build back stamina and strength. Be patient.

As you start your comeback, it can help to focus on what you or your kids really love about playing. It may take time, but you will eventually get back to your peak levels. Should you need guidance or have concerns about discomfort and injury recovery, reach out to our team at OHOW. Our physical therapy professionals and orthopedic experts are ready to help you get back in the game quickly and safely!

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