As soon as I read the article, I picked up the phone. Granted, it was still only 6:30 a.m., so I didn’t expect anyone to answer, but I wanted to at least leave a message so I wouldn’t forget to call later and be shut out of appointments for months. After all, with a big story that morning in the Boston Globe, I figured the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention would soon be inundated with calls from parents across New England.
Affiliated with Children’s Hospital through its founder and director of the Department of Sports Medicine at Children’s, Dr. Lyle Micheli, what grabbed my attention and started me dialing was the article’s point that the center’s explicit focus was on injury prevention, not rehabilitation, in children and adults of all ages. With two elementary-school athletes in the house and two parents who have suffered almost every possible sports injury in the books, I know first-hand that an ounce of sports injury prevention is worth many, many, many pounds of rehabilitation.
At least two kids on Sam’s Mite team already have suffered diagnosed concussions this year, and my daughter competes in one the most dangerous of sports, horseback riding, as well as a sport with an enormously high rate of ACL tears, lacrosse. In the case of hockey, with the current “three diagnosed concussions and you’re out” rule, registering one in your Mite tenure does not bode well for your longevity in the game. When I read that one of the Micheli Institute’s goals was the development of youth evaluations and conditioning programs to prevent concussions in the first place, I almost jumped for joy.
I left a message, and sure enough, at 8:31 a.m., I received a call back from the receptionist, and made appointments for both Morgan and Sam to be evaluated. About two weeks later, they were thrilled when I pulled them out of school for the 30-minute drive to Waltham. They didn’t really get what they would be doing, or why we were going, and I didn’t offer much explanation beyond we were meeting some trainers who were going to ask them to try some different exercises.
Of course my elusiveness didn’t matter, because within about five minutes they had both caught on to the evaluative nature of the exams and were locked in fierce competitive battles to outperform one another. Each kid was assigned to an exercise physiologist, Morgan with Emily and Sam with Jen, and then separated into their own exam rooms, where they spent the first 15 minutes in an exhaustive question-and-answer session. Everything from how much they slept at night, to how much stretching they did, to their motivations in playing sports in the first place. These questionnaires were obviously geared toward high school athletes, so it was amusing to sit back and listen to my kids come up with answers for things like, “Would you ever take banned substances if it meant you could win a gold medal?” Morgan thought this meant something her favorite band might give her, while Sam was completely mystified. When I told him it meant cheating — taking a medicine you aren’t supposed to take that gives you special strength — he got it.
Sam: “You mean like Lance Armstrong?”
Me: “Yep, just like that.”
Sam: “No way.”
Me: “Not even for a gold medal?”
Sam: “No way.”
Me: “What if no one would ever know?”
Sam: “No way.”
Me to Jen: “I can’t imagine you get a high affirmative response rate to that question, especially with Mom in the room.”
After they finished the questions, they got down to business. I was impressed with how thorough the physical exams were. In layman’s terms, they tested joint laxity, range of motion for all the major muscle groups, structural assessment including limb measurements and knee camber, limb and core strength, balance, extension, aerobic fitness and explosivity.
After about 90 minutes of testing, Jen and Emily compiled reports on the kids and consulted with one of the sports medicine doctors on staff. During the down time, Morgan and Sam took advantage of the rotating rock climbing wall and self-powered treadmill to continue the competition, while I marveled at the fact that neither of them seemed tired, even after all those tests.
When I was called in to meet with the staff again, I learned some things I knew already, and some things that surprised me. In the former category: Sam is built to be a goalie, even if his mother doesn’t want him to be one — tall, strong and lax in his joints, with good reaction time. Morgan has good bilateral leg strength and balance from riding. I was surprised to learn how inflexible Sam was (putting him at risk for muscle pulls), how much he struggled with balance after his recent growth spurts, and how lopsided his strength was in both his upper and lower body. Morgan, meanwhile, set a new Micheli record for valgus collapse (inward knee collapse when the leg loads), which made me realize just how vulnerable she is to ACL injuries playing lacrosse.
We left with detailed reports of the findings, which included the injuries the kids were most vulnerable to; a training “prescription” of exercises for the kids to do; and some sport-specific resources. Unfortunately, the classes that the institute features are too far away for us to attend, but the prescriptions were detailed enough that the kids have been able to follow them at home with minimal parental oversight.
It wasn’t cheap, but in the era of knee surgeries and head trauma concerns, I found it a reasonable expenditure to make sure our kids were doing everything they could to stay safe while they played hard. The only drawback is that, without following up with a regular class, it’s left to the parents and kids to stay motivated and follow the prescription. How effective it is depends on how they follow through.
We’re already losing steam on our own, particularly Morgan, who has a greater homework and commitment load than Sam. That’s why I’ve started investigating local options for them to train with a group, even if that just means getting a few teammates together in our basement, where I have most of the equipment already. Now if I can just figure out a way to keep them from turning Thera-bands into slingshots and medicine balls into dodgeballs.
April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.