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Three in four young elite athletes injured over one year

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Young elite athletes face a high risk of injury, Swedish research shows.

The doctoral thesis from Karolinska Institutet examines injury patterns and training and health variables, such as nutritional behaviour, self-esteem, self-perceived stress and sleeping habits, among adolescent elite athletes. It also identifies risk factors for sustaining a sport injury, and explores the consequences of sport injuries and athletes’ perceptions and experience of being injured.

Philip von Rosen, a researcher at the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society, conducted the study with adolescent elite athletes from 16 different sports at 24 national sports high schools across Sweden.

“Our studies show that the incidence of injury is high in adolescent elite athletes,” von Rosen said. “During the average week, one in three of them was injured. Over a year, almost all of them had been injured at least once and around 75% reported that they had been seriously injured at least once during the year.”

Girls had the highest rate of injury and remained injured for longer.

The research also showed that the risk of injury increases with low self-esteem, especially in combination with less sleep and higher training volume and intensity.

Athletes who increased the volume and intensity of their training while reducing the duration of their sleep showed a 100% rise in risk of injury. Meanwhile, athletes with low self-esteem who increased the volume and intensity of their training while cutting back on sleep had three times the risk of injury compared to an athlete with average self-esteem who had not changed their training or sleeping habits.

“The high risk of injury in adolescent elite athletes shows that early-intervention injury-prevention strategies are needed in order to avoid long-term consequences of injury and to encourage continuing engagement in sport,” von Rosen said.

Focus group discussions revealed that being injured can lead to a loss of identity for young elite athletes, and they often experience loneliness, self-blame or self-criticism.

Medical teams should be made available to these athletes to reduce the unhealthy behaviour associated with being injured, to prevent new injuries and to help injured athletes return to sport, von Rosen recommended.