Volleyball Player Injury Series: Why Does Your Swinging Shoulder Hurt?

As a player and someone who has a passion for volleyball, I want to play as long as I can and do so pain free. It’s what I love to do, so to not be able to play one rally, let alone a whole tournament or for weeks and months, is painful.

Whether you play recreationally, club, school, collegiate, or professionally unfortunately at one point during your career, or even now as you read this, you have experienced or are experiencing pain in or an injury to your shoulder.

The big question is WHY?????

To start to understand and appreciate why shoulder injuries occur in volleyball and how to avoid or fix them, we must 1) Understand and appreciate the shoulder and all it’s moving parts. Once we do that we can talk about 2) Common reasons for injury and lastly, 3) Break down the mechanics of a volleyball swing and see how it all connects.

The Shoulder

The shoulder is an awesome and complex joint. It’s actually made up of four different joints (sternoclavicular, acromioclavicular, glenohumeral, and scapulothoracic), many different bones of all different shapes and sizes, and has many different muscles attached to it. The shoulder is great because it’s so mobile and can move in so many different planes and directions. With that said, it takes a lot of timing, coordination, and a good balance of mobility and stability to make sure all things are moving properly.

When it doesn’t that’s when you can run into issues. Especially once you start adding load, like when you’re training in the weight room, or lots of repetition, the countless number of swings you take in practice and competition.

Why do injuries happen?

There are many ways injuries can occur. They can be traumatic, like falling and breaking a bone, or non-traumatic, which are more like injuries that have occurred over time, where you can’t really pinpoint a specific event that may have caused it. We’ll focus on non traumatic injuries today.

With non traumatic, there’s normally a deeper underlying issue that causes the shoulder to “act up” and become an issue. Based on what we see in the clinic a lot with our athletes, it normally comes down to three things.

1) Their bones and joints aren’t in the right position to and they don’t have the appropriate mobility to do what they need

Example: If the bones that make up your shoulder aren’t positioned properly and moving appropriately, you can experience pinching/ catching and put extra stress on certain areas

This can result in issues like, impingement, labral tears, tendonitis and others

2) They lack the strength and control to support what they’re doing

Example: Hitting a volleyball requires a lot of arm strength and speed. Players need to not only accelerate their arm, but also decelerate their arm quickly. If they don’t have the proper strength to control that arm action, some where in the body is going to take the brunt of it.

This can result in rotator cuff tears, instability, dislocation and others

3) They are performing the movement incorrectly and inefficiently

They may have the right amount of mobility and strength, but if they aren’t being coached properly on how to swing, or are swinging way too much, this can also lead to issues

The Volleyball Swing

Now that we have a basic understanding of and recognize of how great, but complex the shoulder joint is, and appreciate some common reasons why injuries occur in general, let’s tie it all into volleyball, specifically the swing (hitting and serving).

With hitting and serving, where I want to put even more emphasis is the follow through and deceleration phase of the swing.

Many times the follow through in a volleyball swing involves the player finishing with the arm on the same side of the body. You probably do this a lot especially if you’re a right side trying to hit down the line or when you hit a cut shot.

To illustrate this point and for your viewing pleasure, because who doesn’t like watching highlights of players bouncing the ball!, watch this video. You can see it with most players, but Lucas #16 of Brasil (the first one in the video) demonstrates it pretty well as he rips one down the line:

While the volleyball swing is just like the throwing motion, this aspect is very different. In a throwing motion, the arm and follow through is normally across the body and followed by subsequent rotation at the trunk and pelvis, allowing for plenty of deceleration and for the forces generated to disperse over more joints and area.

In volleyball, when the arm finishes on the same side of the body, it requires the shoulder joint, it’s muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other structures to take up most of the brunt of the force and responsibility to decelerate the arm.

Look at where both these players’ arm finishes in this picture, same side as their swinging arm.

With that said, the goal isn’t to change how volleyball players swing. It is important though, to make sure the shoulder is healthy and capable of performing this movement and handling this demand.

We achieve this through screening and assessment, to find out if any of the issues mentioned above are present. If they are, it’s important to properly and effectively address those issues, so they do not cause new or further injury to the shoulder.

If you are currently experiencing pain in the shoulder, or this post resonated with you and you have questions or comments, please feel free to contact me. Also, check us out for more posts like this one in the future.