As you watch these young athletes run, you may notice some differences in various skill levels. Some can run smoothly and quickly, while others seem to run awkwardly, especially if they have just been through a growth spurt. Let’s discuss some factors affecting the performance of children involved in sports. You can also take a quick inventory/quiz to see if addressing postural alignment may help to improve the youngsters’ running and athletic ability.
First, note some postural issues. Is one shoulder higher than the other? Does the waistband of a pair of pants sit straight or does it slope to the right or left? Can the child stand still, with the feet even and together without losing balance? Can he or she stand on one foot for 10 seconds? How about touching toes with fingertips while standing and keeping the knees straight? Can the child sit still on a chair for 10 minutes, or is there a lot of squirming or jumping up? Is there trouble sleeping? Do you find the child asleep in contorted or awkward positions? While the youngster lies on his or her back on the floor, can you fit your hand between the floor and the small of the back?
Do shoes wear out unevenly? While running, do the ankles twist easily? What about running up and down stairs smoothly without holding on? Is there a great deal of difficulty switching directions while running, like breaking right or breaking left? Can he or she kick a ball with either foot while running? Does one leg cross in front of another leg or “toe in” when walking slowly? Does the child run with the shoulders held up to the ears or run leaning in a falling forward manner?
The first two questions deal with general postural symmetry. The next two questions assess balance skills, which can be compromised if a child’s alignment is off kilter. The ability to touch one’s toes depends on hamstring (back thigh muscle) length, general flexibility and pelvic alignment. Being able to sit still can also indicate spinal and pelvic alignment, and whether ligaments are appropriately loose.
There are many reasons why children can have trouble sleeping. If, however, a child always sleeps in a particular contorted position, or always has the head cocked to one side, there may be an underlying structural imbalance. A large “sway back” is a transitional phase kids go through, but children should be able to lie flat on their back without space under their back within several months after their growth spurt.
The answers to the remaining questions can reveal various imbalances. Uneven wear in shoes and a sudden increase in the frequency of non-traumatic ankle sprains are two clear signs you should pay attention to. The last few questions involve less obvious signs.
It is important to remember that growing children ages 6-12 undergo rapid changes in their bodies. It is not at all uncommon for a child to appear awkward, clumsy and out of balance for a few months and then “catch up to him or herself” and become agile again. It is only if a child doesn’t seem to find balance and continues to have difficulty with many of these skills that a physical therapy evaluation may prove very helpful. Much can be done to correct imbalance and enhance athletic ability. In children, these changes can be dramatic and very rewarding.