Stretching is almost universally advocated but there is considerable confusion about who should stretch, how long to stretch for, what muscles should be stretched, and how to perform a stretch. Rather than attempt to offer an exhaustive review of the subject here, this section will only offer suggestions and a review of frequently asked questions.
Stretching, like all physical activity, should be approached with an appropriate amount of care and understanding of the individual problems that a player may have. Some children have medical conditions or anatomic problems that prevent certain stretches. Additionally, some coaches like to stretch with the team prior to demonstrating activities. It is very important that the coaches warmup and stretch properly since their risk of injury is greater, in general, than the youngsters they are coaching. As a rule of thumb, if there is marked pain associated with a stretch, you should back off and either try an alternate stretch or decrease the degree of stretch.
The easy answer is everyone but, of course, easy isn't always correct. Most young, pre-pubertal children have enough flexibility that it is debatable whether stretching is effective or useful. Indeed, if improper technique is used, there is a real risk of injury. However, it is important that young children develop good habits on the soccer field and it is for this reason that all age groups should perform some stretching routine.
To be most effective, the muscle should be warmed up prior to stretching. Most coaches will incorporate intermittent stretching during their warmup activities (i.e. start an activity, stretch, begin a new phase of activity, stretch, and so on). In addition, studies suggest that stretching during the cool down after training helps in clearing lactic acid from the muscles and speeds muscle recovery.
Again, the easy answer is all of them, but, realistically, this is not possible and may not be essential. Besides the general, large muscle groups, some coaches like to stretch muscles that will be specifically involved in that sport. For example, soccer coaches will often specifically stretch the calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps while not specifically working on arms or forearms. Most stretching programs begin with the back, then stretch the upper body, and finish with the legs starting with the buttocks and progressing down to the calves.
There are many different forms of stretching, each with advantages and disadvantages. It is generally agreed, however, that the old ballistic stretching that many of us did in physical education classes long ago is not useful. This type of stretching has the individual bouncing into a stretch (remember gently bouncing up and down in an effort to touch your toes?). Passive stretching is where the muscle is stretched and held by some other force (another body part, a partner, the floor, etc.). Isometric stretching is similar to passive stretching, but now the muscle is contracted against the other force (e.g. pushing against a wall while attempting to lower the heel). This form of stretching, while very effective, is only recommended when the contractions and stretches are performed in the submaximal, pain-free range of movement (pain during contractions is a precursor to damaged tendons and ligaments).
There truly is no easy answer to this question. Little research has been done to investigate the time it takes to adequately stretch most muscle groups. It is known, however, that hamstrings take a minimum of 15 seconds to achieve benefit from stretching. Other muscle groups make take as long as 30 seconds. As a general rule of thumb, therefore, stretches should be held for between 15 and 30 seconds.
Most rehabilitation programs include some form of stretching. However the degree and frequency are best decided by your doctor and physical therapist, not your average youth soccer coach.
While most young children have no problem performing a variety of stretches, coaches who try to stretch with their team should be warned. Straight leg toe touches compress the disc spaces in the back and can cause severe pain. Similarly, lying on the ground and trying to put your feet over your head compresses the discs. The 'hurdler's' stretch (sitting down with one or both legs bent so the foot is next to the hip while you lean back) can cause damage to the medial collateral ligaments (the ligaments on the inside of the knee), compress the medial meniscus (the cartilage that separates the bones that form the knee joint), and may cause dislocation of the patella (the knee cap).
In summary, stretching is an activity that should be done by all age groups after warming up and during the cool down after practice or games. Developing the habit and proper technique at an early age will pay great dividends later in life.Updated 17 March 1999