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Bodywork for the Young Athlete


“Mom, my back hurts.”

That’s what I would hear on an almost daily basis starting last November from my 13-year-old daughter, who has been a competitive gymnast since she was 8.

I took my knowledge as a mother, a recipient of massage, and a by-default longtime student of touch therapies, and did my best to relieve her pain with massage (using a lot of pin-and-stretch) and trigger-point work. We made it through the rest of the 15-week competitive season, and through her state championship competition, but were back to square one once she’d crossed the finish line. Before I could consider letting her advance to the next level’s skills, we had to figure out the problem. (Oh, if only I had a Doug Nelson in my hip pocket!)

I started by taking my daughter to her longtime pediatrician, who did the right thing and referred us to a specialist. He concurred, however, with my feeling that her pain was caused by a mechanical issue as the result of improper form on certain gymnastics skills. Next stop: the orthopedist. This specialist wanted to do an X-ray of my daughter’s back before any evaluation, but I balked at the idea, noting the area requiring X-ray exposure could be problematic for a 13-year-old female. No X-ray. The orthopedist’s diagnosis was nerve root irritation, which came with the recommendation to see a physical therapist (PT) for four appointments, and then go see a spine specialist. Hmmm.

We ventured to the PT, whose intake and preliminary findings proved exactly what we thought: poor body mechanics during certain impact skills was causing my daughter’s back pain and nerve irritation. And, with the stretching and additional core exercises he gave her, some collaboration with her coaches, and the continued hands-on work I could give her before bed, her pain diminished and her willingness to jump higher, punch harder, and go bigger returned. As did my willingness to let her advance to the next competitive level and put the spine specialist recommendation in my back-back-back pocket.

The journey is not over, however; far from it. Next up: finding that sports massage therapist who can deliver to my daughter more than just the massage of my untrained hands, and who can speak directly to my little athlete about her sport.

How fortunate was I, then, to be talking with sports massage icon Benny Vaughn for this issue of Massage & Bodywork magazine?! He put my mind at ease when he answered the question: Does sports massage look different for a younger athlete than an adult athlete?

“Whether it’s a 13-year-old body or a 23-old-body, in my experience, muscles are muscles,” says Vaughn (, often heralded as the “father” of US sports massage. “What becomes most important is the strategy, not the technique, that the massage therapist takes to address the biomechanical challenge.” Read the rest of Vaughn’s conversation about working with young athletes in this month’s Massage & Bodywork Digital Extra exclusive.

With Vaughn’s advice in hand, I’m off to track down a therapist who can talk my daughter’s language—both the language of her sport (back pikes, flyaways, giants, etc.) and the language of her body.

—Karrie Osborn is senior editor at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals