Student Athletes: When is it Safe to Return to the Playing Field?

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COVID-19 caused the largest sports shutdown since World War II. The National Baseball Association shut down. The National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball followed suit. The National Collegiate Athletic Association cancelled their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, along with the remainder of all winter and spring sports. And lower, middle and high schools cancelled classes, along with their sports programs.

While it’s uncertain when sports programs will rebound, things will eventually return to normal, albeit likely a different normal. What can athletes do now to try to maintain their edge? And how can they safely return, once programs resume?

Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute-affiliated primary care sports medicine physician Rehal Bhojani, MD, shares the guidance he’s giving his sports patients for using the current downtime wisely and for eventually ramping back up. Dr. Bhojani is the fellowship director of the Primary Care Sports Medicine program at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, where he also serves as an assistant professor.

What should student athletes focus on right now?
“For most student athletes, it's really going to come down to what they can do in their own homes—getting on a bike, walking and jogging, and, depending on the sport, just doing sport-specific stuff in the confines of their own homes, whether it be inside or outside in the backyard. Right now, I think maintaining fitness is the most important thing—fitness over skillset,” says Dr. Bhojani.

Does the time off from team sports offer any special opportunities for athletes?
“Yes, the current climate presents an opportunity for athletes to work on other aspects of fitness. A classic example I give is for throwing sports. In throwing sports, you typically use your arm, shoulder, elbow, wrist and a combination of all of them. You've been using them for an extended amount of time. This is your opportunity to start building your core, your lower body, your lower back and building your cardio fitness so that you can last longer. If you are a runner, this might be the time that you switch to yoga or Pilates which allow you to work on flexibility, balance and strength at home,” he says.

Any special advice for team players?
“If you're a team sports player—football, basketball, soccer, basketball—you can do drills at home. Basketball players can do dribbling drills. Football players, if they have the right environment, can set up props to do the drills they need to do. You have to get creative within the rules that have been placed upon us to ensure our health and safety,” says Dr. Bhojani.

When will sports resume?
“That's a conversation that is taking place at all levels of sport, but it's still too early to say. As we get more information about the virus, and the testing you can do, and how it evolves in this city versus the rest of the country, I think time will tell us what we can and cannot do with regards to student athletes and sports altogether. I wish I had a different answer, but that's the answer that we have right now,” says Dr. Bhojani.

What factors will be taken into consideration?
“Obviously, we're going to have multiple concerns. When we call to return to play and return to sport, once we allow the ramp-up fitness to training to occur, how does that occur, in what mode does that occur? How do we safely get the schedules put back into place and give every athlete of all levels in a competitive environment the ample opportunity to gain physical and mental traits and skillsets so that they don't get hurt? It’s a very daunting question and one that the entire world is struggling with right now.

We're going to have to figure out how to A.) get athletes fit, B.) get their training up and make sure their training is adequate enough to reduce injuries, and C.) get them out there in an environment that will allow them to play in the safest way possible, and get them back to where they want to be,” says Dr. Bhojani.

To schedule an appointment with a Memorial Hermann affiliated primary care sports medicine physician for yourself or a family member, visit www.memorialhermann.org/doctors or call (713) 222-CARE (2273).

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