Young Athletes: When to return to play

Feb 16, 2016

“Return to play” refers to the point in recovery from an injury when a person is able to return to playing sports or participating in an activity at a pre-injury level.

The severity of injuries determines the length of a rehabilitation training program. Often, the major goal of a training program is when to return to play. When an athlete and therapist are setting return to play goals, it’s important to consider the recovery time needed and what can be done to prevent the injury from returning. Keep in mind, most soft tissue injuries (sprains, strains, fractures) need approximately six weeks to fully heal. The work and commitment from the athlete and therapist can make the recovery process even more successful. 

When an injury happens, an athlete can be forced to leave their sport and focus on their recovery. This is a great opportunity to fine tune their mental drills and skills to prepare for their return. It can be a frustrating time, but it’s also a chance to improve in their sport without actually competing. During normal practice time, recovering athletes can research their sport, analyze game footage, and learn about their injury. Imagery is a great way to stay in the game – rehearsing sport-specific skills, plays and strategies during rehabilitation. Mental practice can be done many places including when, for example, icing the injured area or just lying in bed.

This mental active rest gives the body time to recover which is very important for a young athlete. How much rest and rehab is enough? When an athlete is practicing hard without any significant difficulty and healing has progressed enough, then they are ready to return to play. Here are some general goals to consider for returning to play.

  • Normal range of motion (ROM). Compare with your uninjured side.
  • Decrease in acute pain to near zero
  • Decrease in swelling to near zero
  • Strength of the affected part at 80 – 100% of the opposing body part
  • 80 – 100% return of balance and coordination
  • The ability to run without a limp (lower body injury) or able to throw with proper mechanics (upper body injuries)

An athletic therapist or physiotherapist can use different types of fitness testing to determine an athlete’s readiness to play. Here is a simple progression of exercises that test the ability to return to sport.

  1. Walk with no limp.
  2. Jog with no limp.
  3. Sprint with no limp.
  4. Figure 8 jog and run with no limp.
  5. Quick cut “zig-zag” running with no limp.
  6. Double leg hop.
  7. Single leg hop.
  8. Non-contact sport specific drills.
  9. Contact sport specific drills, and
  10. Return to competition.

A therapist wants to help the injured athlete return to play and sport as soon as possible. This requires that he or she be safe and effective in healing and training the athlete’s body. The best tools to make rehab progress quickly are actually learned before injury. If an athlete is well conditioned and fit, they can sometimes recover faster and prevent more/future injuries.

Another thing to consider when an injury occurs is how fast the athlete receives medical attention. The more time spent with an athletic therapist or physiotherapist immediately after injury, the less time spent with him or her during recovery. Healthcare professionals are there to help athletes get back on track. Some areas that an athlete can concentrate on to speed up recovery are:

Concentrate on Nerve/Muscle Training

  • Rehab workouts should be an educational experience in teaching the body to effectively generate muscle activity.

Conserve Energy

  • Focus on the task at hand and try not feed on the emotion of competing. An athlete will be able to tap their mental reserves so they can think more clearly and perform stronger.

Forget the past and focus on what’s next

  • Each day is an opportunity to accomplish small goals that move you forward. One day at a time.

Prevention is the key

  • As an injured athlete learns new skills, they can also learn ways to adapt and improvise.

When an injured athlete has reached the maintenance stage of their rehab program, they are ready to compete again. This stage also helps to compete safely by including exercises that can prevent re-injury. A major factor for younger athletes is too much participation. Remember that bones and muscles are still developing and young athletes cannot handle the same stress as adults. Rest is needed.

Injury can be overwhelming, but if young athletes stay positive, maintain an upbeat mental attitude, and complete their rehabilitation plan and program, they will be able to return to play in no time!

– For information, contact