Teaching girls not to "jump like girls"

It looked a bit silly at first, but it was for Megan Olson's own good.

Brian Ommen, a physical therapist at Great Plains Therapy in Vermillion, attached pieces of Velcro to Olson's hips, knees and ankles. He then attached a ping-pong ball to each of those six sticky pieces.

Then he had her jump off a small wooden box that is approximately three feet high. A video camera recorded the entire jump, which took less than a second.

The data from that brief video session, however, is yielding valuable information for female athletes like Olson.

It is helping Olson and her peers at Vermillion High School and several other schools in the region learn the proper way to jump. That, in turn, is helping reduce injuries.

"A lot of girls tend to jump with their knees pointed together, toward each other — they 'jump like girls' is what some people say," Ommen said. "So what we're looking at doing is to show girls how to jump with everything evened-out, to get their knees in alignment (with their hips)."

Young females athletes run a 10 times greater risk of suffering ACL injuries to their knees.

"So we've been going to different schools — we've been to Vermillion and Beresford, Centerville, Gayville-Volin, and Yankton. We're screening the girls, seeing how they are jumping, and we've found some terrible results, to tell you the truth," he said. "So what we do is come back to each of the schools and do a six-week Sportsmetrics jumping program with them, that really focuses on jumping technique."

Technique is the major focus of the program's first two weeks.

"During the middle two weeks, we push the girls a little harder, to go faster," Ommen said. "The last two weeks we really push, to build up their strength while they jump. We've had some great results with Vermillion and Gayville-Volin – those are the two schools where we've completed the six-week program. Vermillion had a 15 percent increase (in knee angle correction among the athletes) and I think at Gayville-Volin, the increase was around 18 percent."

Some of the Vermillion High School female athletes who have participated in the Sportsmetrics program have achieved a 44 percent improvement in their jumping techniques.

"That's monstrous," Ommen said. "That's a huge improvement."

Following the six-week program, the athletes are re-screened to check on how well they are maintaining their newfound, safer jumping styles.

"We've been going to the different schools and it's been a good experience," he said.

There are several theories that explain why girl athletes are more prone to knee injuries than boy athletes.

"Females have the wider hips, which make their knees naturally go in," Ommen said. "Studies also have shown that the muscle recruitment patterns in males and females are different while they are jumping. Females tend to recruit their quadriceps, or their thigh muscles, more. Males tend to recruit their hamstrings more, which keeps their knees back and in the right position."

Other factors come into play as well, ranging from hormones to ligament laxity. "But what's getting the most attention is the muscle recruitment patterns between males and females," he said.

Since the Sportsmetrics program is geared toward female athletes, Ommen has primarily been working with volleyball team members at Vermillion High School and other area schools.

"That's not to say that the male athlete, especially the young male athlete, shouldn't go through this, because it would help them, too. But, volleyball season is the first season of the school year, and we intend to do this with female athletes once basketball season begins, too," he said. "And we've had some interest in working with track teams this spring.

"We've been going to the schools and doing this as a community service project. We have a goal of screening 300 girls in the area," Ommen said. "We're well on our way, and there's been no charge for this."

The athletes have warmly received the Sportsmetrics program.

"The girls use the jump training as a warm-up exercise at the beginning of practice," Ommen said. "I can't say they are all happy that they have to do jumps before practice, but I would say that a huge majority feel they have improved with their jumps, and increased their vertical jumps as well.

"If you jump using the right form, you're going to jump higher, better, stronger, faster," he said.

It's the odd combination of Velcro, ping-pong balls and videotape that help show the problems that girls are experiencing while jumping. The Sportsmetrics program notes the position of the ping-pong balls on the video images of the girls during their jumps.

It creates a graphic that looks much like a stick figure that shows the angle of the girls' knees compared to their hip positions

"Should the video show a small knee angle, that could leave a female athlete prone to ACL injury," Ommen said.  "What I do then is I come back every two weeks and I really drill into that athlete's head how to keep her knees in line with her hips. Doing the jumps correctly is the biggest thing. A lot of times, there are strength issues involved in their knees that can cause the bad angles, so just participating in athletics can help with that because it naturally builds up knee strength.

"Girls also have a huge problem with non-contact injuries," he said. "A lot of time their injuries come from jumping and landing, and they may not have the muscle recruitment patterns or their muscles don't have the knowledge to support their knees."

Lenni Billberg, the Vermillion Tanagers' volleyball coach, is glad that this program has been introduced to her athletes.

"Anything to make us jump higher is going to help us get through the season and also reduce injury," she said. "It's really made a profound difference with some of our older kids."

The Sportsmetrics programs serves to be a natural fit to her team's regular warm-up exercises before each practice.

"It was just a slight change," Billberg said, "so we could build on that. The kids already believed in it without knowing that it was something new."
She believes that the Sportsmetrics training has contributed to the overall health, and jumping ability, of her team.

"Our kids are landing more soundly, and that makes a big difference in volleyball when you have to go side to side," Billberg said. "That movement isn't natural to your body."

"We saw some great improvements with the volleyball team," Ommen said, "so we will continue this with the girls' basketball team."

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