By Walter Villa
For a while this past February, Cosy Burnett became a 6-foot-2 libero.
“And not a very good one,” joked Burnett, now a junior outside hitter for La Costa Canyon (Carlsbad, Calif.).
The reason for using Burnett in the back row was not an experiment but rather a way to rest her aching right shoulder.
Since she started playing competitively when she was 12, Burnett has launched thousands of swings at increasing rates of velocity.
“There were times when I hit too many balls without enough rest or breaks to support it,” Burnett said. “I thought of myself as invincible.”
Burnett started to feel pain late last January. For the first two weeks, she tried to play through it. There was a big club tournament coming up in Anaheim, Calif., and Burnett had heard there were 50 college scouts expected to attend.
This wasn’t the time for an aching arm.
But Burnett’s uncle, Dr. Heber Crockett, an orthopedic surgeon based in Nebraska, told her that she needed to refrain from playing and fly to his office immediately.
“Ever since my freshman year, my uncle’s been urging me to take a summer off,” Burnett said. “He thinks playing year-round is absurd.”
Crockett said shoulder injuries among middle school and high school girls’ volleyball players are common. He explained that the capsule that holds the shoulder together is generally looser on females than males.
That looseness, the doctor said, can result in multi directional instability or MDI, which can cause tendinitis.
Crockett compared MDI to a car with loose lug nuts on the right front tire.
“As long as you go 2 mph,” the doctor said, “it’s not a big problem. But as these players get older and their bodies start going 60 mph, the next thing you know, you damage your shoulder.”
Crockett said most young players are not properly trained to keep their hitting shoulder aligned. He said volleyball is “begging for a spike count” similar to how baseball monitors a pitcher’s throws.
He said he went to one of Burnett’s tournaments in which she played four matches in one day and estimated she hit 200 balls, including warm-ups.
“In warm-ups, volleyball players tend to hit as hard as they can to try to intimidate the other team,” the doctor said. “It’s crazy. You don’t see baseball pitchers in the bullpen go freaking nuts.”
Worse than the overuse, Crockett said, is the resistance he often gets from parents and coaches. Even his sister, Rebecca Burnett, initially asked if her daughter could be allowed to play that big tournament.
Bryan Hill, a physical therapist who owns Rehab United in San Diego, is equally frustrated when coaches, players and/or parents fail to heed the advice of experts.
“When I was a young athlete, you took three months off and gave your body time to heal,” Hill said. “Now money drives everything. Kids are in camps and club ball all year long. By the third tournament in a row, their bodies can’t handle it, and they tear something.”
Hill believes that year-round devotion to sport is, to some extent, creating better athletes – but at a heavy price.
Burnett – with some prodding from her uncle – was determined not to pay with her right shoulder. She decided to take a couple of months off from volleyball last spring and spent the time working with Hill on strengthening her entire body.
She was nervous about how her coaches at Coast Volleyball Club would react to her taking time off even though, technically, she wasn’t injured. She was also nervous about how college coaches would react.
But by mid-July, when she participated at the Brigham Young and Stanford volleyball camps, her anxiety had vanished.
“She is doing better,” La Costa Canyon coach Pat McDougall said. “Missing time last spring cost her some touches, and she’s still working on her coordination, but her shoulder is fine.”
As for shoulder injuries in general, McDougall said he is careful with all his players.
“We don’t do a lot of hitting in practice,” he said. “We don’t overdo it. We don’t take them to exhaustion.
“But they start so young, and they play year-round. They don’t take any time off. The parents may be more to blame. They think if they take a week off, they will fall behind. But they will actually be ahead.
“Some players will tell me, ‘Hey, I won’t hit today in practice.’ They are getting smart about it.”
Burnett is happy she got smart before it was too late.
“I’m so grateful I took that time off,” said Burnett, who has a 3.8 grade-point average and is an aspiring attorney. “Now I talk to girls on other teams, and I’m the one whose arm doesn’t hurt.
“I do worry about those girls. I hear them complain, but it is not something they put out there publicly because there is a fear of injury and a fear of losing an opportunity at a scholarship.”
Alexa Armstrong, a 6-0 middle hitter who played at Torrey Pines (Del Mar, Calif.), was lucky in a sense. She had already secured a scholarship to Northeastern University when she hurt her shoulder as a senior last year.
She suffered from tendinitis as a freshman and a sophomore, which was probably no surprise since she was playing volleyball nearly 12 months a year.
Her only breaks were a week or two between high school and club season, depending on how far her team went in the playoffs, and then a similar span at Christmas. But even then, she would hit on her own, striving to improve.
Last October, in a big high school match, she felt a sharp pain in her shoulder. She stopped, did a couple of arm circles, and continued to warm up.
Once the match started, the pain was so intense she couldn’t raise her right arm.
“At that point,” Armstrong said, “I’m blocking with one arm.
“But when I went to swing, my shoulder came completely out of my socket. I dropped to the ground in pain, and I was just laying there, in shock.”
Armstrong had torn her labrum and had surgery in November.
Her story has a happy ending, though. She returned to play a club tournament in May and is now a regular in the rotation as a freshman at Northeastern.
“I feel really strong now,” Armstrong said. “It changed my life because now my whole body is in better shape.”
Armstrong said she has become smarter in terms of taking care of her body. She applies heat to her shoulder before hitting and makes sure she does all her stretching exercises.
After a match or practice, she stretches again and ices her arm.
“I’m diligent about it,” she said. “I would advise girls to listen to your body and don’t go against what you feel. And if you get hurt, don’t come back halfway. Come back 100 percent.”