Is the high competitive level of college sports the cause for the increase in devastating collegiate injuries to athletes per year?

Maryland profile By Austin Kilbourne

Lauren Snell was a pole-vaulter for Christopher Newport’s Track and Field team. She was recruited by the teams head coach her senior year of high school to become a Captain. She began pole vaulting her junior year of high school. She set the school record for indoor and outdoor track at her high school and placed 7th at high school indoor states and 6th at high school outdoor states. She had high hopes for higher height achievements when she was recruited to go to college. Once the collegiate season had begun, she matched her personal best from high school at the collegiate indoor conference championships her freshman year with a jump of 10’ 9” but she hit a bump in the road when she started suffering major back pain during practice and meets. After several months of trying to diagnose what was wrong by the end of her sophomore year doctors misdiagnosed her and treated her for Sacroiliac joint pain. After months of therapy and no progress, she was referred to another doctor who performed another MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Finally neurosurgeon, Dr. David Vincent, discovered she had a fractured L5 vertebra along with herniated and bulging discs. He prescribed her physical therapy and if no improvement was seen, she was to have surgery in 6 months. By the end of her sophomore year she was scheduled to have a spinal fusion and have a year and a half of recovery and physical therapy to follow.

Doctors now are contemplating the impact level of collegiate athlete programs on the average athlete’s body. Football players are suffering from multiple concussions. (here) Baseball players are suffering from rotator cuff injuries. (here) According to USA Today, (here) the amount of Ulnar Colateral Ligament (tommy john) surgeries is becoming an epidemic since an average 36% of players will eventually need the reconstructive surgery during their career. According to USA Today, on average there are 12,500 injuries per year. 25 % of them are considered serious or severe.  According to CNUs Dr. Michael Sean Hooker, “You are twice as likely to re-tear an Anterior Cruciate Ligament in the year after a surgery and 50% more likely to re-tear within five years after the surgery in comparison to another healthy athlete. Female college athletes are predisposed to ACL injuries because of gender and are five times more likely than a male to receive this injury.”

The National Athletic Trainers Association found that ACL and concussion injuries have increased over 7% in the last over the past 16 years (here). Many factors have influenced the injury trends such as changing NCAA policies and rules in addition to increased practice and game requirements for athletes. (here) NCAA has increased the allowed hours of practice per week to 4 hours per day while in season and a mandatory one day off per week. This is an increase in the amount of hours spent on the field and in the weight training room.


Lauren was a pole-vaulter for CNU’s track and field program. Due to the mechanics of the sport, these athletes are predisposed to severe injuries from falls, but some injuries received may be able to be prevented. Pole vaulting is a relatively high risk sport for major injuries. The athlete sprints down a runway placing the end of the pole into a box buried in the ground. When the back of the box catches the pole, the pole bends and the momentum of the athlete propels them upward and over the bar as the pole uncoils and pulls them through the air. All going well, the athlete then lands on their back on a mat on the other side of the bar without knocking the bar off the pegs. Many things can go wrong to cause a pole vaulter injury. They can fall back on the runway and miss the mat. They can take off the ground in the wrong position and cause a rough jerking on their body by the pole. A lot of the injuries in pole vaulting are severe due to a fall or mistake in the vault, but some can be caused by wrong technique or improper positioning during the vault.

“I was recruited to CNU from high school to pole-vault. I was an all -state athlete in high school and was excited to start my career as a collegiate athlete. We began training for our season by having a ‘fall camp’ where our coach used this time to introduce the warm up and training techniques our team used. Over the week we memorized the warm up routine and event specific routine as well as the team workout performed by the whole team together. Over the fall semester we were expected to perform the workouts posted by our coach to get in shape for the coming season, but as pole-vaulters we were limited in what we were allowed to do. We aren’t allowed to actually do full vaults until the season starts and our coach comes to practice.”

She explained that the coach stated the NCAA rule didn’t allow them to complete full jumps unless a coach was present and the season had begun. Until then groundwork was allowed. Ground work is defined as, “Any workout where the athlete is not leaving the ground due to the pole propelling them onto a mat. The athlete must remain on the ground but a pole is allowed to be used for pole handing technique and proper pole drop mechanisms.” (here)

“This puts us at a disadvantage because we aren’t allowed to actually vault from the end of outdoor season which is generally around May until December. That’s a long time to go without actually vaulting. Baseball players are allowed to hit and pitch. Football players can throw and catch. Soccer players can kick and take practice shots but pole-vaulters aren’t allowed to take jumps into the pit over a bar. Were limited to only do ground work.”

“As the season started, dealing with new coaching techniques and not having a pole-vault specific coach was hard for me to adjust to. Once season started we trained for 3 hours every day of the week except Sundays. We did 2 hours on the track and 1 hour in the weight room after.”

The coach for CNU was a man of many talents. He coached the sprinters, high jumpers, hurdlers, and pole-vaulters. The only negative to the coach being so widely trained was the amount of attention each group got during practice was split between all the groups and therefore was less than if they had each had their own individual coach.

“I didn’t start having problems with my back until the conference meet, when my lower back started hurting. I was nervous to tell my coach because I didn’t want to be pulled out of the competition. I avoided getting treatment because I was unsure if I was just out of shape or if I actually had a serious injury. Finally my athletic trainer looked at my back and recommended that I see a specialist to examine my back.”

“After a year of seeing several different doctors each with differing opinions about what was wrong with my back, I finally saw a neurosurgical specialist who discovered from an MRI that I had broken my L5 vertebrate and herniated my disc. This would require spinal surgery where the herniated disc was removed and the vertebrae below was fused to the broken L5.”

“I feel like this injury probably could’ve been prevented. A lot of Olympic athletes video every jump practice and then review every jump looking for ways to perfect technique and prevent injuries by bad form and bad habits.”

Video analysis of athletes’ movements could be evaluated and used to show how improvements could be made. Baseball players are using this technique called Biomechanical Pitching Evaluation to prevent elbow and shoulder injuries in pitchers. (here) A camera is used to record the movements and then slowed down to analyze any improper techniques or bad habits that could’ve been formed. This could be implemented in a daily routine to prevent bad habits and reduce injury from improper techniques in pole vaulting.

“My athletic trainer and coach were very proactive and supportive of helping me find out what was wrong with my back and once I found out they were very supportive during my recovery and rehab. Hopefully due to my injury, NCAA could alter some of the rules to allow athletes to practice year round and then the preseason strength training would be more of a sustainment of technique and off season time could be used to alter bad habits rather that retrain yourself every time season comes back in the fall.”

NCAA could create a clause stating that athletes realize the possibility of injury when pole vaulting without coach supervision. Athletes could sign a waver to claim responsibility for injury and be allowed to do full vaults. A clause could be made that an adult has to be present but as long as it wasn’t a coach this would’ve violate the NCAA rule of out of season practices and wouldn’t cause an athlete to be over the 20 hour rule per week. This rule states that athletes are only allowed 20 hours of practice per week in season with a coach present. (here)

By allowing all season training, the NCAA would get rid of preseason training. This is a stressful time on the body. It requires a lot of time on a track, in a gym, or in a weight room trying to regain the strength, speed and agility the athlete had the season before. Allowing the athlete to train all year round would get rid of preseason training because the athlete would focus more on maintenance rather than recovering what has been lost.

If NCAA didn’t want to allow year round training and practice, then the school could institute a more individual pre season training and gear exercised to individual event groups. The pole-vaulters for example could have mandatory back strengthening exercises as well as upper body and core exercises to get the body ready for the stress of pole vaulting on the upper body. They could also implement gymnastics training to get a better idea of correct positioning when performing pole vaulting correctly. Girls are naturally weaker than men so workouts could even be gender specific. More specific preseason training could help prevent injuries once the season has started.

Using Lauren as an example, the NCAA should alter some of their track and field policies. To prevent injury NCAA could allow year round season training to prevent the strain on the body of getting back in shape for a competitive season and allow the athlete to maintain rather than have the stress of trying to catch up on what was lost while out of season. If year round training isn’t an option, more gender and event specific preseason training could help prevent injury and reduce the risk of major injuries that result in surgery and rehabilitation. Prevention techniques such as video analysis and gymnastics training could teach proper techniques and body positioning and reduce the risk of injury due to improper techniques.

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