Loudoun County program for young athletes focuses on injury prevention


Reese Wissinger, Ben Drennan and Stuart Pliuskaitis work out with medicine balls. (Jim Barnes/For The Washington Post)
June 4

Last year, Lansdowne residents Trish Drennan and Lisa Allen were looking for a fitness and conditioning program for their children that focused on preventing injuries, promoting good nutrition and being fun, as well as improving athletic performance.

As co-owners of BlackBench Fit, an Ashburn fitness center that has offered conditioning programs for adults since 2008, the business partners wanted to enroll their children in a program that reflected their principles.

“When we did the research, we discovered that what we wanted in a program didn’t exist,” Drennan said.

So they decided to do it themselves. Last spring, BlackBench Fit began offering a conditioning program for children age 9 and older. As in their adult offerings, which Drennan said remain the “bread and butter” of their business, the focus is on preventing injuries and promoting healthy living.

BlackBench Fit recently expanded its youth programs to meet the demand for a higher level of conditioning for middle school and high school athletes.

In February, the business became licensed to offer a program developed by Mike Boyle, a Boston-based athletic trainer who has worked with several Olympic and professional sports teams, including a U.S. women’s Olympic soccer team and the Boston Red Sox and Bruins. The program pairs young athletes with specially trained coaches who work with them systematically and progressively through a series of workouts.

The coaches provide instruction in movement training and injury reduction through foam rolling, linear and lateral speed development, foot speed and agility, explosive power development, proper weight training techniques and functional strength training, Allen said.

“Our number one goal is to turn them over to their upper-level coaches primed to peak not when they’re 14, but when they’re juniors or seniors in high school, so they can have their second peak in college,” Drennan said.

“We’re designing [our program] to prevent injury first and improve performance second,” Boyle said. “And I think most programs . . . would have those things in reverse order.”

Boyle said that several trends in youth sports — including early specialization and year-round sports — are contributing to an upsurge in injuries, including concussions, knee injuries to soccer players and elbow problems for baseball pitchers.

“You’re seeing adult injuries in children, which leads you to believe that something is drastically wrong,” Boyle said.

Boyle blames early specialization for many of the injuries. In affluent areas such as Loudoun County, there is considerable peer pressure on young athletes to choose a sport at a young age, he said.

“As an adult, we need to specialize to be successful,” he said. “And so we think the logical solution is, if I want my kid to be good at something, then we need to pick something and focus on it. And the reality is that the empirical experience doesn’t support that.”

“They have created a culture where if you are not playing year-round, you lose your spot,” Drennan said. This early specialization is putting constant stress on young, growing bodies, which leads to injuries, she said.

Age 15 or 16 “is about the time you should be specializing, but by then most kids are either burnt out or they’re hurt,” she said. The result is that many young athletes already have injuries when they start playing sports in middle and high school.

Pat Little, whose 14-year-old son, Chris, is enrolled in a BlackBench Fit conditioning program, said he was drawn by the fitness center’s emphasis on safety, nutrition and education.

Chris had developed severe heel pain after years of playing competitive soccer, and as he went through a growth spurt, the pain transferred to his hips, his father said. It got to be so painful that he had to stop playing for a few months.

“When [Drennan] first had Chris come in for an evaluation, tests showed that certain parts of his abdominal area and his quads were very strong, but his glutes were incredibly weak,” Little said. He was told that this was caused by a running technique that had been favoring one part of the body at the expense of the other.

“She was really able to pinpoint the problem, and now the exercises that he’s doing are addressing the problem,” Little said. “She knew exactly, right away, where the weakness was.”

After about a month of conditioning, Chris was pain-free and able to return to soccer. Last weekend, Chris started and played most of the game as his team won the state championship of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, his father said.

With the summer sports season at hand, BlackBench Fit is planning a 10-week summer conditioning program. Allen said the young athletes will work in small groups with the same trainer on a progression of workouts throughout the summer.

“We really feel strongly that the time to improve athleticism can’t happen during in-season play, when field play, skills and winning games are prioritized by coaches,” Allen said. “We can’t expect our young athletes to improve in their sport without getting better at movement on the field, rink or court. Our summer academy training is designed to do just that — get athletes faster and more powerful in their sport and deliver them to their coaches injury-free.”

Jim Barnes is a freelance writer.

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