At Children’s Hospital Oakland, experts work to prevent injury, improve performance in young athletes

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Trainer Daniel Kamenetzky films volleyball player Ellie's stride as she performs a walking drill. Kamenetzky heads up the athlete development program at Children's Hospital Oakland.

On a sun-drenched field in the center of Piedmont High School’s track, Daniel Kamenetzky stares intently at his trainee’s knees, trying to figure out what she’s doing wrong. “Aha!” he says, snapping his fingers. He then gives some simple, but important instructions on how to position herself so she doesn’t strain her joints while she squats.

Kamenetzky is working with Ellie, an 8th grade volleyball player with knee pain, as part of Children’s Hospital of Oakland’s Athlete Development Program. Conceived as a preventative branch of the hospital’s already booming Sports Medicine Center for Young Athletes, the program centers on training kids and teenagers involved in a wide swath of sports. The goal is to not only make them more efficient and improve their performance, but to keep them injury-free. The athletes involved undergo an intense evaluation in which their movements are filmed and tracked, and a series of training sessions, all under Kamentzky’s watchful eye.

“We’re seeing more preventative medicine in healthcare as a whole,” says Michelle Cappello, a physical therapist and management coordinator at the sports medicine center. “People are more aware of where we need to go, and know that you can’t just manage injuries when they come up. We’re now thinking in terms of what can we do to prevent them, and not just for the next 6-8 weeks, but throughout their lifespan.”

Slowly, Kamenetzky is growing the Athlete Development Program to facilitate these goals. A native of Argentina, he studied biology, physical education and kinesiology at the beginning of his career, and has spent the last 25 years working with young athletes as a coach and trainer. With his roiling accent, easy demeanor, and passion for all things sports-related, Kamenetzky seems a natural fit for the job. As he trains Ellie, he incorporates thumbs-ups, humor and gentle correction into his teaching style.

On this day at Piedmont, Ellie is meeting with Kamenetzky for the fifth time. She, like every other athlete in the development program, began by going through an intense evaluation to explore how she moves, and how those movement patterns can be altered to prevent pain and improve performance. The evaluation works this way—first, Kamenetzky uses information given to him by the athlete’s physical therapist to determine where the weaknesses are. Next, he sits and takes a complete medical history with the patient and their family, making sure to note any pain or injuries. Finally, with a high-speed camera, he videotapes the athlete moving, and later studies the tapes to isolate real problem areas.

“We watch animations of the athlete’s muscular skeletal system and we try to understand, together, where the problems are,” says Kamenetzky. “We try to figure out what the best process is to change the trends and to improve performance.”

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Kamenetzky, right, pays detailed attention to each movement his athletes make.

Then, Kamenetzky and his trainee hit the pavement. Or the Astroturf, in Ellie’s case. At an athlete’s first appointment, they start out with simple static movements—basic ankle exercises, or walking drills to help streamline the stride and avoid knee or other leg injury. By Ellie’s fifth session, she’s added dynamic movements: running drills, squats, baton swinging and arm drills with an exercise band. Eventually, she and Kamenetzky will work on movement and technique specific to volleyball, like proper form when jumping to spike the ball, but he’s clear that this process is best done slowly and with care.

“The old structure, or movements, will always be there,” he says, as he watches Ellie run down the field in deliberate paces. “Their brain is directing them to do one thing, and I am acting as a new brain outside of their body, telling them to do something else. We have to destroy the old structure and create a new one.”

Kamenetzky says that there’s no single way to do this. His methods vary from athlete to athlete, and he’s hesitant to even say what the most common athletic mistakes are. Every athlete is different, and when Kamenetzky examines their movements, he knows he could find something he’s never seen before. Even though he’s met with her several times before, he videotapes Ellie’s movements so he can chart her improvement and be sure his teachings are taking hold.

Kamenetzky is generally unimpressed with the way child athletes are nurtured—injuries, he says, are taken too lightly, and untrained individuals are put in charge of young teams all the time. If anything, he argues, the most highly educated trainers and coaches should be looking after our youngest athletes, and teaching them techniques and habits that will keep them healthy for the long haul.

So far, Kamenetzky is working with five athletes in his program, but hopes to expand. Currently, all of the kids were formerly injured athletes who went through other treatment at the sports medicine center, but any young athlete can get involved, even if they haven’t been injured.  Athletes (or, let’s be real, their parents) are charged by the session—despite the trend toward preventative care, insurance does not cover the Athlete Development Program.

“Our hope is to see how we can reach insurance companies to make them understand that paying up front is easier than paying later,” says Kamenetzky. “One of our projects is to try to change that model and make changes in insurance and prevention.”

In the meantime, Kamenetzky hopes to educate whoever he can—he plans to reach out to coaches in schools, and he’s offering his wisdom to the general public free of charge. On Tuesday, January 31, he and Cappello will hold a gratis community lecture at the Outpatient Center Auditorium at Children’s, titled “How to Stay on Track.” The talk will focus on methods of preventing injury in young track athletes. For more information on the talk, and on how to get involved in the Athlete Development Program, visit the Sports Medicine Center’s website.

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