West

Rx for young soccer players: yoga

Justin Saglio for the Boston Globe

Boston College womens soccer coach Alison Foley (left) and Isabella Hanna try to balance a ball during a session of Soccer on the Mat at Artemis Yoga in Watertown.

As Boston College women’s soccer coach Alison Foley worked with youth programs in Massachusetts, she couldn’t help but notice an increase in non-contact injuries among young girls playing the sport.

Girls were rolling their ankles and suffering torn anterior cruciate ligaments at a pace that was “way too high” for their age, according to Foley.

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To combat the trend, Foley in the spring of 2015 created Soccer on the Mat, a program for middle school-aged girls that incorporates yoga into everyday soccer drills.

A practitioner and believer in yoga for over a decade, she’s convinced that bringing the practice to younger girls increases core strength and flexibility, while decreasing the chance of injury as the girls grow.

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“There is so much more worry about the pressure of soccer,’’ said Foley. “I thought that if these two worlds of mine could combine, there would have to be some good to come out of it.”

The program, which found its permanent home at Artemis Yoga in Watertown last December, hosts about a dozen girls, ages 11 to 15, and focuses on building and celebrating their physical and emotional growth through a variety of drills, poses, and conversation.

Students can sign up for classes that run twice a week for eight weeks in November and January for $200. The latest session began Nov. 9.

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Bobby O’Guin, a Newton North sophomore who first took the program as an eighth-grader, was surprised to see how much yoga affected her on the field.

“It helped us with our core strength and our recovery,” said O’Guin. “It made me more aware of my body and what I need to stretch and focus more on.”

Artemis founder Liz Padula said that a lot of younger girls who play soccer have already developed a good amount of lower body strength, but lack core strength.

“They are so strong in their legs, but they can’t hold a plank pose,” said Padula, who opened her studio last December. “We work a lot with the opening postures to build their core, so they could learn to engage their core.”

As girls grow in their adolescence, some tend to develop poor posture, which can take away flexibility and balance on the field.

“We work through some basic postures to open the upper chest and the spine,” said Padula. “A lot of kids tend to get self-conscious. They start rolling in with their shoulders. We teach them to roll their shoulders back and to extend from the sternum.”

Yoga has been catching on with athletes at the professional level as well. David Beckham used it to help him return to health after a 2010 ankle injury. Pete Carroll, head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, made yoga a mandatory part of preseason workouts in 2013. The Boston Breakers of the National Women’s Soccer League also incorporate yoga into their training.

“It is awareness for how important the core is for all sports,” said Foley. “At all ages, certainly at the college level, coaches and trainers are incorporating these techniques into their team training.”

Yoga improves more than that core, say its enthusiasts, who believe its simple breathing patterns and techniques help relieve stress and improve focus.

“One of the main tenets of yoga is to calm the chattering of the mind,” said Padula. “There is a lot of specific healing that goes on in yoga. A lot of it is just to get your mind off what is going on outside.

“Imagine the breath filling up the low belly,” she added. “To the middle, then to the top, pause, and notice that pause, then exhale from the top. If you can teach a kid to do that, before a test, before a game, it induces a relaxation response.”

Sydney Greene brought those breathing practices with her into her senior season at Newton South, where she tended goal for the Lions.

As a team, the Lions only gave up 11 goals in the regular season. Still, Greene learned to collect herself each time a ball got past her.

“I got three deep breaths, then I had to let it go,” said Greene. “Being a keeper seeing the ball go back in the net was a really hard thing. Using that message of taking three breaths, then letting go, really helped me to stay motivated.”

Greene introduced her South teammates to yoga in the offseason, during which the team trained together at Artemis.

“Soccer practice is usually loud and fast,” said Greene. “It is different to be with my teammates and no one is talking, but it really does bring us closer together.”

And soccer players aren’t the only young athletes who can benefit.

Newton North girls’ lacrosse coach Kate O’Leary brought her team to the studio six to eight times throughout the spring season to help regenerate the day after a game.

“I had a lot of girls complaining about back pain and shin splints,” said O’Leary. “The days after games, we wanted to focus on working out the lactic acid and stretching their muscles. Yoga is perfect for that.”

Michael McMahon can be reached at michael.mcmahon@globe.com.
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