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Old/New School Stretching

by Dave
Friday, September 05, 2008

I recall the bygone years of my participation in youth sports somewhat fondly but sometimes the bad things about those days pop into my head.   There were those times when I nearly passed out from dehydration at hot football practices, the various injuries from different sports due to improper stretching, and the year long sore arm.   Lots of our approaches in sports have changed over the years.   Many have not.   Some of the mistakes from the past are probably repeated frequently because the approaches have been perpetuated by those who do not bother reading up on changes suggested by scientific research.   Some of the approaches remain because no researcher has looked into them enough.   There are more "old wives tales" utilized in sports than there are in probably any other specific aspect of life.   But coaches and parents need to keep up to date, understand changes, and use a little common sense or risk injuries, sometimes serious ones.

I have two old football stories regarding antiquated thinking.   When I began playing football, we were encouraged to not drink a lot of water before practice because it will cause cramping.   How stupid was that?   This idiotic approach was compounded during practice by the absolute refusal of coaches to permit any real drinking of water while workouts were underway regardless of the temperature, humidity, or intensity of drills.   I've seen kids go down under these circumstances.   I never went down myself but there were times when I nearly passed out.

When I was a 13 year old 8th grader, I played Pee Wee football which had a weight limit of 125 pounds.   I weighed 135 after a summer of Forest Gump activity, running to friends houses so we could run to someplace where we could play sports all day long.   Two of my friends were of similar weight.   But we were the best players on that team and the coaches needed us.   So they made us wear sweatsuits and multiple clothing layers beneath those to every practice.   We were refused any water, encouraged to exist on celery and carrots - but not fruit.   They worked us until our bodies registered just this side of 125 at weigh ins before games.   Then, after making weight (or negotiations between coaches to permit this 129 kid to play if our two 126s could), we were actively discouraged from eating anything or drinking any water before game time so we wouldn't "cramp up."

Later, in high school, where no weight limits were involved, all of us were still denied water.   The "trainer" did wheel out a contraption which was rumored to hold water.   But players were discouraged from doing more than wetting their mouths - take a quick squirt and then spit it out.   If a player was seen standing around the water for too long, coaches would freak out and demand he move away.   If a player was repeatedly found near the water, he was forced to run laps to burn off any excess water and teach him a lesson.   The result was 100 kids on the brink of dehydration every so often glancing at this octopus-shaped thing holding a few gallons of 90-100 degree, dirty, germ-infested, plastic-flavored water, while not even entertaining the thought of taking a drink from it.

I guess that octopus held about 3-5 gallons of water.   After a two hour practice in the late August, early September sun, it was usually still half to three quarters full.   The "trainer" would pick up from the ground some hose at the side of the building and add a little more dirt, some bacteria from the ground, and a few gallons of hot water which was previously standing inside the house, in the sun.

Today, it is pretty clear that athletes need to hydrate well before any activity and then replace all fluids which are lost during the activity.   Experts tell us to drink fluids the night before and then continue up to a half hour before the activity.   Then they encourage us to continue drinking during the activity.   Finally, they note that when we allow ourselves to get even slightly dehydrated, our performance levels drop.   Further, because water gets quickly absorbed, and cold water actually helps the body to cool down properly, drinking that dirt soup at 90-100 degrees is not helpful.   So, everything my football coaches told me and my teammates with respect to water drinking was wrong.   Nowadays, some far better trained fellow calls himself trainer and brings cool sports drinks to the practice and game field.   Nobody screams at the big kid hanging around by those drinks.   There is some yelling but it often sounds more like "hey, stupid, hydrate yourself."   Times have changed.

One thing my old football coaches did seem to have an accidental handle on was that of stretching.   No, we didn't do much of what I have recently come to call "static stretching" in which muscles are stretched to a point of elongation, before pain causes one to stop, held there for some pre-determined length of time, usually 10-20 seconds, rested and then stretched again.   Rather, we performed what I recently have come to call "dynamic stretching."

Dynamic stretching, broadly defined, involves no pull, hold for ten, rest, repeat sequence.   Rather, it involves performing movements that mimick athletic movements like running with very high knees, lunges, crab walks, rolling shoulders, and performing other actions that are a part and parcel of the movements one will make during actual athletic competition.   Dynamic stretching warms up specific muscles, increases their range when compared to that found at resting, and encourages blood flow to the appropriate muscles.

In my football days, we performed jumping jacks, squat thrusts, push-ups, light agility drills involving accentuated movements of the legs and arms, boiuncing up and down while jumping slightly into the air and reaching high with our hands, sideways burst running while extended our arms in a repeated push-up like move, and many other "exercises" which were intended to accomplish essentially the same objectives we see today discussed as "dynamic stretching."   At the end of a series of exercises, each of us was usually lightly sweating and we felt very loose.   I do not recall a single kid ever getting a pulled muscle or experiencing significant joint pain during those football days.

Today I understand a little bit better why that is.   Today, the information I receive from sports training experts like Marc Dagenais tells me that the things we did before full football practice are preferable to the "static stretching" I was instructed to perform in other sports.   To my knowledge, there is no information out there today which recommends static stretching over dynamic stretching immediately prior to engaging in athletic activity.

But back in the day, many coaches in many sports, as well as gym teachers in school, often required static stretching before all activities.   In particular, I had a swimming coach who was a huge proponent of static stretching.   He was brought in to coach our YMCA team because they wanted to take things up a notch and compete on a national level.   He was a serious-minded man, if not the brightest bulb in the Universe.   He understood that he had certain limitations and, as a result, brought in a woman who had won Olympic hardware to help us train.   But when it came to stretching, he was absolutely certain he had a handle on that aspect.

This coach forced us to arrive at the pool about a half hour before practice began in order to complete a full compliment of static stretching exercises.   First we received a lengthy instruction on which exercises to perform.   Then he supervised us to make sure everyone knew how to do these exercises properly.   Then he encouraged us before every practiuce to do our stretches.   He was very big on personal responsibility, one of his strongest suits, and after these early stages, he informed us that it was as much our duty as athletes to perform stretching before every practice as it was to give our all during the practice itself.

One of this coach's weakest points was his coaching approach.   He worked on the principle that if I want you to do something you are not doing, or not doing properly in my judgment, I will belittle you until you have no other choice but to do it my way.   I didn't care much for static stretching and I could not feel the benefit in my body.   I was accustomed to dynamic stretching and sometimes I reverted back to that.   This coach would call me out on the pool deck and belittle me in front of my peers.   He would make fun of my "football exercises" and then tell me I was failing in my personal obligation to my teammates because I did not properly perform the entire repertoire of static stretches he had recommended.   Of course, I complied.   I also began to sneer at those ridiculous "football exercises" I had been performing.   And then I began to have shoulder problems which continue to this day!   But I never equated these events.   I carried my lessons in static stretching with my until very recently.

To be quite honest, I considered myself to be rather knowledgeable on the subject of stretching.   I recall a girl I coached just this past year who frequently had stiffness in her arm and shoulder before practice.   I taught her a regimen of static stretches I wanted her to perform several times a day and then, especially, right before practices.   She never performed these on her own time but did do them right before we began our sessions.   When I next see her, I am going to make sure her parents understand that this is precisely the wrong approach.

At some point, I got curious about what was meant by static and dynamic stretching and began to read up on it.   It now becomes pretty clear to me that my swim coach was wrong, the football coaches right, and what I have been carrying around with me for all these years as an adult needs some revision.   I came to this conclusion after reading several articles by sports experts and then noticing the way Olympic and other athletes at high levels prepare right before competition.

If you watched the Olympians in action, you probably witnessed many dynamic stretching exercises performed by them.   For example, the track stars would take a short jog on the track while pumping their knees and arms very high and fairly hard.   Swimming phenom Michael Phelps was never seen right before races performing static stretches - stretch, aided by a trainer, hold, rest, stretch.   Rather his pre-competition movements were rapid stretches, ending with a flapping of his arms to increase blood flow into his shoulders.

If you ever watch football in the last few minutes before a game begins, you see the players running along the sidelines similar to what I described above.   Field goal kickers do perform some of what appears to be static stretches along the sidelines before that game winning kick but they do not hold positions for ten seconds.   Rather they seem to do these movements far more "dynamically" and hold for two seconds or less.   Then they kick into the air.   Appear to do some more conventional stretches but only holding for a couple seconds, and then kick again.

Baseball players in the on-deck circle also often perform what can be called dynamic stretches.   They pick up a couple bats or some weighted rod, swing lightly to loosen up their wrists, and then take a couple "practice swings" in which they over-accentuate their actual swing.   They very slightly over extend certain limbs, get the blood flowing, and prepare for the very dunamic movement they will make shortly, when their turn at-bat comes.   They do not stretch, hold for ten, rest and then stretch again.

Relief pitchers can often be seen getting ready to throw in the bullpen by performing dynamic stretches.   They stretch quickly, flex, make abrupt motions, and then start throwing in an exaggerated way before settling into normal pitches.   When a pinch runner enters a game, most often, you will see them perform conventional static stretches while holding for only a few seconds.   Then they will run down a sideline while accentuating the more demanding aspect of running, similar to what you see track stars do.   Infielders replacing someone in the later innings also perform what can best be described as dynamic stretching.

I guess I fell into a trap all the years I witnessed athletes performing dynamic stretches.   I just assumed these people were short on time, had no time for proper stretching - or didn't know how to do it, and/or just did the best they could under the circumstances.   I was wrong.   They are most likely doing what they do with a specific purpose in mind.   They have very expensive and skilled trainers advising them on how to avoid injury.

Please understand that I am no trainer and have received no formal education, let alone degrees, in this discipline.   I am merely an ex-athlete, a parent of players, and a coach who pays attention to what I see before me.   I read a ton about anything when I have serious questions about what I am observing.   I rely on the experts and you should too.   I am not advocating that all of you start performing dynamic stretching immediately.   I am encouraging you to start asking questions of trainers, read everything you can get your hands on, and make up your own mind about this.

Also, please understand that I am not jumping on some bandwagon or getting up on a soapbox from which I encourage everyone to sneer at static stretching.   I believe these exercises have an important place in athletic training.   There does not seem to be any question that both static and dynamic stretching hold benefits to athletes.   The problem is, they are each typically used the wrong way.

Static stretching is something an athlete should do when he or she is not about to engage in some other sort of training such as a throwing, running, fielding or batting drill.   These exercises in which muscles are elongated, held in stretched position, rest, repeat, are very good ways to increase range of motion and flexibility.   If you perform the ole standby, "toe touches," your hamstring flexibility will increase over time.   The same is true of static stretches for every significant softball muscle in your body.   Flexibility is very important in this sport.   I think engaging in things like yoga or other flexibility-related organized activity can help any athlete improve her performance.   I am not a newly minted anti-static-stretching fanatic.   But I do discourage you from performing static stretches right before practice or games - as my swim coach required us to do before practice and races.   At those times, I do believe dynamic stretching is better.

Please finish this article not so much armed with new information but rather with an active intellectual curiosity to learn more about the benefits and potential harm of dynamic and static stretching.   I send you forth to the internet, library, bookstores, and to your local strength, conditioning trainers, armed with questions you need answered.   OK, GO!

Follow-up:

Recognizing that some folks need a little help locating things on the web, I will add the following links for your use:

1) a good video demonstrating some dynamic leg stretching exercises

2) a pretty good list of some dynamic warm-up drills in pdf format

3) some dynamic warm-up exercises with illustrations from the US Tennis Association (Yes, I know sport-specific stretching is important but many of these exercises are standard for softball)

4) If you see anything with a great softball-specific dynamic stretching routine involving the upper portions of the body, please send the link to me and I'll post it here if I like it.

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