It was a chilly Thursday evening in November back in ’99. Yes, my dears, I am fully aware that was well before you were born. Back to the story…Sammamish women’s soccer was playing Skyline; we were up 2-1. In the last ten minutes of the game, I charged a loose ball in the back field. After gaining control, I looked briefly up field surveying for red uniforms. In the corner of my left eye I spotted a Skyline striker on perpendicular path barreling my way. “Clear it Claire,” I thought, “clear to the corner.” With my right leg firmly planted on the frozen-over turf and my left prepared to strike, I felt a sudden and unique zap of pain, then I was horizontal on the field eating turf salt with two players and the referee hovering over me. What is sam heck happened? Said Skyline striker came in hot with a vicious slide tackle…that’s what. Without getting too grisly with the details, my right foot and shin remained stationary as the full force of her impact was absorbed by my right knee, hyper extending it away from my body. I was a lucky one, however – no MCL or ACL tear, but that one slide tackle in ’99 has plagued my right knee with medial synovial plica irritation for two decades. Chronic stiffness, soreness, and swelling of the right knee with fluid. Yummy.

Knee injuries, they’re no joke. Patellofemoral pain syndrome, Osgood-Schlatter disease, Apophysitis, Patellar and Quadriceps Tendinitis…what do they all have in common? They’re all fierce foes of female teen athletes.

For your parents and coaches, there’s not much worse than seeing your body buckle and collapse as you grab a knee. The truth is, female athletes face unique obstacles when it comes to our bodies and how well we perform at crunch time. We females hit our growth spurts at an earlier age than boys, and reach our adult height earlier. Higher estrogen levels mean we have more body fat than teen boys (they have more lean body mass because of higher androgen levels), and our differing body structures – females have wider hips and less upper body strength – is what makes our ligaments more relaxed, boosting the risk for injury.

The highest-risk sports for knee injuries include: basketball, soccer, cheerleading, field hockey, singles tennis, lacrosse, cross-country and skiing. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, nearly 200,000 ACL injuries are estimated to happen each year. In addition to knee injuries, teen girls are more likely to have problems with shoulder instability and ankle sprains because of their more relaxed ligaments.

You might be thinking “well crap…this is morbid truth serum Coach CP…thanks a heap.” Fret not…I tell you this because there are things YOU can do to significantly reduce the chance of a knee injury in your sports career.

  • Stretch, stretch, stretch!

Oftentimes one of the major factors contributing to overuse injuries is inflexible muscles. Athletes need to pay particular attention to stretching the muscles surrounding the knees and hips; specifically, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, piriformis, and calf muscles. Hold each stretch steadily for 30 seconds and repeat each 3 to 4 times.

  • Plyometrics, baby!

Have a cone, can of black beans or a hardback book? That’s all you need. Try these 3 to 4 nights a week  – the whole she’bang takes less than 5 minutes.

  • Lateral hops over object – 30 seconds
  • Forward/backward hops over object – 30 seconds
  • One-legged hops over object – 30 seconds each leg
  • Toe taps on top of object, alternating legs – 1 minute

These exercises are explosive and help to build power, strength and speed. The most important element when considering performance technique is the landing… it must be soft. When you land, you accept the weight of the balls of your feet and slowly roll it back to the heel with a bent knee and bent hip.

If you already suffer from knee pain, there are also some basic strengthening exercises that can help decrease anterior knee pain:

  1. 4 Way Straight Leg Raises: Lie on back, tighten thigh muscles and straighten injured leg. Slowly raise straightened leg 12 to 18 inches and lower down to starting position.Rotate onto one side and repeat the straight leg raise in that position. Rotate to lying on stomach and repeat, then to other side and repeat straight leg raise. Perform 3 sets of 10 to15 repetitions in each of the four positions.
  1. Wall Slides: With your back against the wall and feet placed approximately 2 1/2 shoe lengths away from the wall, place a ball (soccer, basketball, volleyball) between the knees and slide down the wall until knees are bent at a 90 degree angle. Hold for 5 seconds, and perform 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
  1. Step Downs: Stand on a 3 to 4 inch high step (i.e. Columbus Yellow Pages) on the injured leg. Slowly bend (squat) injured knee until opposite heel touches the ground, and then return to the original position (injured knee straight). Perform 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

LEAD uses these tips plus research performed by The Santa Monica Sports Medicine Research Foundation for Knee Injury Prevention in Female Teen Athletes

Performing these exercises one to two times per day can help to reduce symptoms of inflammation, and keep you where you belong – in the action! Flexibility and strength will improve faster with a little persistence and dedication to preventing and treating overuse injuries.

Get after it, ladies!