Apart from enhancing performance in athletes, one of the other primary objectives of strength and conditioning training is to reduce injury potential. There are a variety of ways in which we can work to protect our athletes on the field. Some common methods include teaching proper mechanics and skill execution. In field sports, this includes repetition of basic skills such as; how to jump, land, decelerate, accelerate and change direction safely and efficiently. Learning how to make a tackle and receive a tackle can protect against contact injuries. Developing sufficient flexibility and mobility levels can, in many cases, enable better and more efficient movement and skill execution. Often this requires the quality eye of a coach to detect poor movement. Screening procedures can be helpful in these situations. Assessing active and passive ranges of motion at the ankles and hips can help detect problem areas that require work. An effective way to determine potential reasons why and how injuries are occurring is to track and monitor when athletes get hurt, injury type and to what part of the body, contact or non-contact, time-point in the game/practice and season, etc.
This is precisely what Gastin and colleagues (2014) did with their elite Australian Rules football club, published ahead of print in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. Over the course of four consecutive seasons, the researchers monitored player characteristics (height, weight, age, experience, position), performance and fitness markers (6-min run, 40 m sprint, 6×40 repeated sprints and vertical jump) along with injury data. A total of 69 athletes were included in the analysis which resulted in a total of 177 injuries recorded with an average of 3 games missed due to injury. Most of the injuries were to the lower body with hamstring and groin/hip accounting for 20% and 14% of the injuries, respectively. 28% of players experienced injury recurrence. When relationships were evaluated between injuries and player characteristics and performance, some interesting associations were found. Injury incidence was increased in players with low body mass, poor 6-min run time and for players playing the forward position. The severity of injury was increased in players with low body mass, tall stature, poor 6-min run time and slow 40 m sprint time.
Unfortunately there isn’t much one can do about height or playing position. The forward position in a sport like Australian football or rugby naturally involves more physical contact with opponents. However, aerobic fitness and body mass can certainly be improved which may help protect against injury. Low fitness levels will result in high levels of fatigue during competition. Fatigue changes how athletes move, play and think, and thus leaves them more susceptible to injury. Low body mass will obviously lead to a disadvantage when head to head against a bigger, stronger opponent. Increasing muscle mass will not only make athletes stronger and potentially faster, but will also serve as armor, protecting themselves from the repeated contacts they’re exposed to in competition. The results of the current study indicate that increases in lean mass and conditioning levels should be prioritized during off-season training in effort to reduce injury potential.
Gastin, P.B., et al. Low body mass and aerobic running fitness increase injury risk in elite Australian football. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, E-Pub ahead of print.