It’s never easy losing a starter to injury. It’s even harder when that starter happens to be a seven-time All-Star, recognized as one of the best in the world.
Just ask Silver Stars Coach Dan Hughes. First, he lost guard Becky Hammon to a broken finger for the first 10 games of the season. Then, when she returned, Hammon suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee after only a quarter of play.
Two years ago, Hammon was named one of the top 15 players in WNBA history as voted by current players, coaches and fans. She was second in the league in assists last season. Without her in the lineup this season, the Silver Stars, unfortunately, have not been able to string together any meaningful number of wins in the WNBA Western Conference.
This is happening with a lot less fanfare in girls’ high school and women’s college programs across the country, which find their seasons tumbling from the loss of one or two key players. ACL injuries make the news with regularity among male professional athletes, but in fact they are especially problematic for female players in sports like basketball, soccer and gymnastics. Physicians in sports medicine have seen a rise in the number of ACL injuries among female athletes, who are four to 10 times more likely to suffer from ACL injuries than their male counterparts.
Part of that rise can be attributed to Title IX and similar initiatives to address equity in athletics and to the increased interest among girls in participating in competitive sports. Simply put, more girls are participating in sports, so more injuries are happening.
But the disparity between girls and boys (and men and women) when it comes to ACL injuries remains troubling for professionals in sports medicine. And it’s frustrating for athletes, parents and coaches because these injuries, which tend to happen without rough or bruising contact, can sideline an athlete for months.
This brings us back to Hammon – a world-class athlete, medal-winning Olympian for the Russian national team and unlikely physical candidate to thrive in pro basketball. Officially listed at standing 5-6 and weighing 136, Hammon was high school prep star in South Dakota who led Colorado State University to a Sweet 16 appearance and became the school’s first All-American her senior season. She went undrafted by the WNBA but signed on to the New York Liberty as a free agent, where she endured a hazing of sorts as her teammates punished her physically during practices to test whether her smaller frame could withstand the rigors of pro ball.
And Hammon has done that and more. Yet despite her amazing physical condition and advanced training by professional and Olympic-level trainers, Hammon became another statistic in the research into ACL injuries among female athletes.
I’ve outlined in this column the increased recognition of the problem among coaches and trainers, and what is being done to address it. Formal training programs to focus on core training, balance and proprioception are starting to take off, particularly in women’s and girls’ programs.
It’s not yet a gold standard, however. It’s time for trainers, coaches, parents and athletes to insist on a formal, evidence-based training proven to help curb instances of ACL injury. Kinesiology programs should make proprioception training a standard in the curriculum so future coaches and trainers are ready on Day 1 to implement, or continue, a balance and training program that will help athletes of all genders to thrive physically on and off the field. And athletic directors should insist on development of such programs for athletes involved in sports susceptible to ACL injuries.
Get informed about these kinds of programs and the benefits to your young athlete. You can read more about proprioception in my earlier columns at these links.
Until next time, play smart and play hard.
Dr. Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff heads the Non-Surgical Center of Texas, focusing on non-surgical alternatives to relieve pain and repair injuries. A former professional tennis player who competed in the WTC circuit, Dr. Zaharoff remains actively involved with the US Tennis Association. Learn more about her at www.drzmd.com.