Numerous NBA stars have missed playoff games this spring with a variety of nagging injuries. Most recently, Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers hurt his knee in the midst of a game, an injury that sent superstar LeBron James on a three-tweet rant admonishing the league and its handling of games during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s not just happening in the NBA. It’s happening throughout sports.
Fewer games might seem to translate to fewer injuries. But when players’ bodies are suddenly being tested in competition after months of relative inactivity, they sometimes don’t respond well.
The pandemic took a toll on athletes
But lack of rest is only part of the story.
“What we’re seeing right now isn’t just because of lack of rest, it could be from the whole toll of the pandemic and resuming physical activity in competitive sports following a lockdown,” said Janet Simon, associate professor of athletic training at Ohio University.
Though it’s easy to look at the lockdown as essentially an extended offseason, Simon said that wasn’t really the case. In offseasons, professional athletes still work out and train. But with Covid-19, gyms and parks were closed, which meant physical activity was more limited for everyone. For professional athletes, that lack of movement can have an intense toll.
Preseasons should, ideally be four to six weeks long, Simon said. MLB’s, not including training before lockdown, was only three weeks.
All of this together — the lack of rest, the congested preseasons, the potentially higher workload — can lead to increased risk of injury for athletes, Simon said.
In England, the Premier League didn’t have a normal preseason and still had a packed playing schedule. Gary Lewin, a physical therapist who worked with Arsenal F.C., blamed those circumstances on the rise of injuries teams saw during the 2020-21 season.
Players are more susceptible to soft tissue injuries
Simon uses the term “detraining” to describe a period when a person doesn’t do an activity for any period of time. Everyone, professional athlete or not, goes through it — it’s the reason why the first few workouts after a vacation can be the hardest.
For professional athletes, though, who are used to a high level of physical activity, detraining can have dangerous results.
“We do know that detraining has lots of consequences,” Simon said, pointing to decreased cardiac output, hormone issues and decreased muscular performance as a few examples. “So if all those things are happening during lockdown, and we expect those individuals to return to activity as normal, we know that’s not going to happen.”
And that, as we’ve seen, is associated with injury risk, Simon said.
Not every injury is due to the impact of Covid-19. But soft tissue injuries — such as sprains and strains in the hamstring, groin and other areas — are going to be more common, Simon said.
It checks out. In the NBA, Mike Conley of the Utah Jazz and James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets both missed multiple playoff games with hamstring strains. Jack Flaherty, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, has been sidelined with an oblique strain. Christian Pulisic, of Chelsea F.C., dealt with multiple hamstring strains during the 2020 English Premier League season, too.
It’s all part of the business of sports, Simon said. In high school sports, it’s easier to give athletes the time they need to recover. When money is on the line, though, it’s a bit more complicated.
The good news is that this period won’t last forever. Simon predicts that once sports schedules realign with pre-pandemic timelines, maybe in a year or two, the increase in injuries will no longer be an issue.
Until then, a rash of soft tissue injuries may be inevitable.