Want to cut overuse injury in half? Teach your kids to use both feet

WendyLeBolt-HeaderThe kids are playing too much! They’re not training right! They’re specializing in one sport too early!

We can shout all day long about what youth soccer is “doing to” our kids, but there’s one thing we can do for them: have them use both feet. Immediately, the wear and tear on their joints is cut in half.

This became clear recently as I observed a session at an ID camp where the coach from Princeton put high school players through their paces. A few quick instructions and they were off. Quick corrections to the group and they were off again. As I watched, nearly every kid used their right foot, over and over again. Of course they did. They’re trying to be noticed, and they wanna show their best. Their best play comes off their favorite foot.

+READ: LeBolt: Ten lessons from the women of the World Cup

I (politely) approached the coach later to ask about this. I, of course, look at every drill as an injury prevention session, so I asked if it wouldn’t be better to require the players to use both feet. Yes, if it was a technical session, she told me, but for this teaching drill, if she required the use of both feet, it would distract them from performing the touches required to be successful. True.

That was a teaching moment for me. Once kids are 14 or 15, they’re gonna go to the foot they’ve always used. So, all day at camp, and the next and the next they would be using that preferred foot again and again. Just as they did all high school season long, overlapped by club season and ODP on the weekends. Our kids are habitually using the same side for everything.

Though we’re made with two sides to distribute our weight and even us out, soccer is played with one foot at a time (generally). That means it takes intention to switch feet. That’s REALLY hard once your movement pattern is carved in stone which, after 10 years of soccer-playing, it pretty much is.

SOCA-ArlingtonSo, while the soccer policy makers, orthopedists, and sports medicine specialists argue with the emphatic parents and coaches about who’s to blame for the overuse injuries in youth sports, you can apply the simple solution: start your kid out with soccer skills using both feet. Even if it’s awkward. Even if he misses. And he will.

Yes, most of us have a “dominant” hand and foot, but if we start using the ‘weaker’ side early, our brain will wire it into regular usage. That means, we will choose it more, use it more and play it better.

Don’t think this can be done? Take a look at Pat Venditte, now a relief pitcher with the Oakland Athletics. He is an ambidextrous switch-pitcher, hurling lefty to left-handed hitters and righty to right-handed hitters, which gives him a statistical advantage. Here’s his major league debut.  Yes, he has a switchable glove, so he can field from both sides, too.

+READ: LeBolt: What’s so wrong with early specialization?

Pat began switch-pitching in Little League which apparently sometimes got him confused for twins. Now, he’s breaking all the rules. In fact, baseball had to create some new ones to accommodate him. He has to declare which side he is going to pitch from before a switch-hitter comes up and he can’t switch sides during an at bat. But amazingly, he switches seamlessly from hitter to hitter.

How’d he develop this talent? His father Pat Sr., trained his naturally right-handed son to throw with both arms to give him an athletic edge, putting Astroturf, a batting cage, radar gun and pitching machine in the backyard. Interestingly, Pat Sr. also trained his son to punt using both feet to establish the alternating leg motion and power needed to pitch from both sides. Kudos to Dad who was using cross- training to teach movement for the whole body.

mufc-ecnlBy alternating arms, you’re halving the usage. And think about the potential for longevity! He only gets half the wear and tear on his shoulders AND divvies up the rotational demand on all the rest of his joints.

What if, early on, we let kids muddle around and have the fun of using both feet? A little older and they’re more versatile, a double-barreled threat to shoot, trickier to defend, and tougher to get around. Oh, and they’re healthier and have fewer injuries.

It wouldn’t take turf, radar guns or ball machines in the backyard for most of us. Just practices designed to take as many on the left as on the right, swapping right-footed and left-footed players to play both sides of the field and the encouragement to give it a try, even when it’s awkward and they miss. Which they will.

Good to get it out of the way well before it matters…when the college coaches are watching.